Sleep apnea changes brain bioenergetics

Snoring is often viewed as humorous. However, one researcher is calling for an end to such a societal view, as snoring could be an implication of a far more serious condition: sleep apnea. And what's more, the disorder of sleep apnea (also spelled apnoea) may be more dangerous than previously thought. Scientists from University of New South Wales (UNSW) has found that those suffering from "obstructive sleep apnoea experience similar changes in brain biochemistry as people who have had a severe stroke or who are dying, the research shows."

Sleep apnea is a field of research that has been gathering steam for some time, meaning most are aware that it exists and that snoring is a physical manifestation of the disorder. Apnea occurs when breathing stops during sleep for at least ten seconds. While unconscious, most biorhythms, including heart beat and breathing, slow. But a ten second gap in breathing accounts for several missed breaths. That means missed oxygen.

The research, published in Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism, used MRIs to track in real-time what is happening in the brain of someone with sleep apnea while sleeping. The imaging found that the lack of oxygen reflected a more severe change in brain bioenergetics than what had been seen in similar experiences conducted with patients who were awake.

"The findings show that lack of oxygen while asleep may be far more detrimental than when awake, possibly because the normal compensatory mechanisms don't work as well when you are asleep," said Professor Caroline Rae, lead author of the study. It is a long-standing fact in science that low levels of oxygen in the brain can cause serious damage. The scans of sleep apnea patients are completely different from what has been seen before in a healthy person, reflecting more accurately the brain scans of someone who has suffered a stroke or is dying.

Why the brain is reacting in such a way is unclear. However, the data is strong evidence that snoring is not so humorous after all. It could be indicative that something very strange, and not so healthy, is going on in the rest of the body. The study could have big implications in the medical field, as 25% of middle-aged men suffer from some form of sleep apnea.

"The brain could be basically resetting its bioenergetics to make itself more resistant to lack of oxygen," Rae said. "It may be a compensatory mechanism to keep you alive, we just don't know, but even if it is it's not likely to be doing you much good."

Credit: Bertil Videt (Source)