Health Team

Sleep apnea can cause brain damage

Posted June 27, 2008
Updated June 28, 2008

The worst danger of sleep apnea might not be losing sleep. New research shows the condition can damage parts of the brain.

An estimated 12 to 20 million Americans suffer from varying degrees of sleep apnea.

The condition causes muscles in the throat to relax and cut off the airway. In some cases, people can stop breathing for several minutes.

"I would wake up in the night, gasping for air," sleep-apnea patient Jim Reynolds said.

Reynolds said apnea zapped his energy and focus. Dr. Ronald Harper, with UCLA, found that Reynolds also suffered from another common side effect of sleep apnea: short-term memory loss.

"If you imagine what it's like when you go through a night without any sleep, the next day you're foggy," Reynolds said. "Imagine what it's like going through 10 years of that."

Doctors have long thought sleep deprivation caused short-term memory loss. However, Harper found that much more goes on in the minds of sleep-apnea patients.

Mammary bodies in the brain store memories, but in sleep-apnea patients, that area of the brain shrinks significantly. Constant oxygen deprivation might be the cause.

Researchers are experimenting with giving sleep-apnea patients a pill used to treat alcoholics with memory loss.

Until the results of that trial are known, the best treatment is sleeping with a breathing assist machine and daily exercise.

"We're finding brain areas do recover, especially after exercise," Harper said.

Reynolds said that prescription has ameliorated his symptoms. "My sharpness during the day improved tremendously," he said.

However, Reynolds said his short-term memory has not returned fully – and he wonders if it ever will.


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  • Ima Cook Jun 30, 2008

    We just buried a 45 yr. old relative who fell asleep on the sofa while watching race. His sleep apnea caused him to be oxygen deprived. By the time 911 was called, he was rushed to hospital, he was in a coma. He remained in a nursing home for 7 yrs. His parents nursed him as well as the staff. He NEVER regained any sign of recognition. They reluctantly removed the feeding tube and he died in about 10 days. This decision was a hard one. I'm saying all this to say to anyone who even suspects sleep apnea. A nursing home, in a coma, at an early age is devastating. This man never dreamed this could happen to him but it did.

  • Snakebite Survivor Jun 30, 2008

    Also, the correct term is "mamillary bodies" (I hope this passes the autocensor). See other stories on this in the Washington Post or NYT (search google news for harper apnea to find them)

  • Huey Jun 27, 2008

    I'm just glad to see sleep apnea get some news time. This is a
    serious problem for many including me. I have used CPAP for years. I have
    heard that the biggest danger it poses is to the heart cause when
    your oxygen level gets low it puts a big strain on it. I urge
    folks who think they may have sleep problems to see their doctor
    and see if they may need an overnight sleep study.

  • Six String Jun 27, 2008

    According to the story, "M****y bodies in the brain store memories, but in sleep-apnea patients, that area of the brain shrinks significantly. Constant oxygen might be the cause."

    I'm just wondering - do you think maybe the writer of the article might have meant constant oxygen deprivation? When you stop breathing for periods of time, your oxygenation decreases. If I'm wrong, someone please correct me. If I'm right, c'mon WRAL, you can do better - pay attention.

    Now another thing, I had to "change" the first word in the quote, WHICH WAS IN THE STUPID ARTICLE, before the automatic censor would let it through. You online guys need to go back and review some of those words. "Mam***ry" is not a bad word, get a life.