Sleep Apnea May Inflict Brain Damage

Sleep apnea is a serious type of sleep disorder that is characterized by the cyclical cessation and resumption of breathing during sleep. When a person with sleep apnea stops breathing, the lack of oxygen prompts the brain to briefly rouse the individual from sleep to restore breathing. Usually, patients fall back to sleep quickly without ever having realized that they woke up. While this might seem like a minor inconvenience, sleep apnea can actually be life-threatening if left untreated. Untreated sleep apnea has been associated with increased risk of stroke, heart disease, and even type 2 diabetes.

Now, researchers believe that sleep apnea may actually change the way the brain works. This could mean that patients with sleep apnea are at risk of cognitive impairment and even brain damage.

Cutting-edge sleep apnea research

This supposition is born of a study that was recently published in the Journal Of Sleep Research. The lead study author, Paul Macey of the UCLA School of Nursing in Los Angeles, and his colleagues studied the levels of brain chemicals in study participants with sleep apnea. They focused on levels of glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which are found in the insula of the brain. The insula is responsible for coordinating brain signals for the purpose of emotion regulation, cognition, and automatic physical functions.

The researchers discovered that people with sleep apnea have atypically high levels of glutamate and abnormally low levels of GABA. This could be a serious problem because high glutamate levels place the brain under excessive stress and impair its function. On the other hand, GABA works as a mood inhibitor to counteract the effects of glutamate.

According to Macey, “It is rare to have this size of difference in biological measures. What we were surprised to see was the drop in GABA. That made us realize that there must be a reorganization of how the brain is working.” Macey stressed the importance of getting treatment for sleep apnea to reduce the risk of complications.

Link between sleep apnea and progressive brain damage

Before Macey’s research was published, the medical journal Sleep published a February 2010 study that evaluated the effects of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) on gray matter concentration. Principal investigator Seung Bong Hong, MD, PhD, who is the professor of neurology at the Samsung Medical Center in Sungkyunkwan University School of Medicine in Seoul, South Korea noted that the results of the study indicated the potential for memory impairment, executive dysfunctions, cardiovascular disturbances, and dysregulation of the autonomic and respiratory control. These impairments are believed to be the results of deficits in gray matter concentration caused by untreated sleep apnea. The researchers suggested that proper sleep apnea treatment may help prevent progressive brain damage.

Do you need sleep apnea treatment in NYC?

Dr. David Blaustein, a New York City dentist with more than 20 years of experience, offers noninvasive sleep apnea treatment that may be covered by your medical insurance carrier. Oral appliance therapy may be particularly well-suited to patients who wish to avoid surgery and cannot tolerate a CPAP machine. Call Chelsea Dental Aesthetics today at 347-773-4917 to find out whether oral appliance therapy could be the solution you’re looking for.


  1. National Sleep Foundation, Sleep Apnea and Progressive Brain Damage,
  2. WebMD, Sleep Apnea May Affect Your Mood, Thinking Skills,
Chelsea Dental Aesthetics Comprehensive, Cosmetic, and Implant Dentistry located in Chelsea, New York, NY

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