While it’s no secret that obstructive sleep apnea is a huge issue in America, researchers at UCLA are now saying it may play an even bigger role in our health that was previously thought. A new study reports that the condition contributes to a breakdown of the blood-brain barrier, which is necessary in protecting brain tissue.
The study, which was released in the Journal of Neuroimaging, may open doors for new ways of treating sleep apnea. The condition affects about 22 million American adults, and is about twice as common in men as women. The condition is characterized by sleep interruptions which are caused by obstructed airways.
The purpose of the blood-brain barrier is an important one — it prevents too many infections, chemicals, and/or bacteria from entering the brain. Damage of the blood-brain barrier has been known to cause other serious health issues such as strokes, epilepsy, meningitis, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, among others.
“We found that the blood–brain barrier becomes more permeable in obstructive sleep apnea, a breakdown that could contribute to brain injury, as well as potentially enhancing or accelerating the damage,” said Rajesh Kumar, a principal investigator for the study and associate professor in the departments of anesthesiology and radiological sciences at the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine.
“This type of brain injury in obstructive sleep apnea has significant consequences to memory, mood and cardiovascular risk, but physicians and researchers have developed pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic therapeutic strategies to repair blood–brain barrier function in other conditions,” he added.
Over the past 12 years, other research done at UCLA has also focused on sleep apnea. Studies have found that gasping throughout the night in response to blocked airways can cause high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and/or memory loss. It has also been linked to tiredness throughout the day, stroke, diabetes, and other issues.
Experts say that the issues caused by or linked to sleep apnea are likely due to the fact that obstructed airways lead to a lack of oxygen circulating through the body. The issue to face now is the fact that doctors and researchers still cannot figure out the cause of sleep apnea.
The findings in this particular study were possible thanks to a procedure used by very few teams around the world. Using a magnetic resonance method, the researchers were able to measure the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier in a noninvasive procedure. The study showed that the breakdown was much higher in those with untreated sleep apnea, as compared to healthy people.
“This suggests that besides improving breathing in obstructive sleep apnea patients, we need to repair or improve blood–brain barrier function, perhaps by using treatments already available for other conditions,” said Kumar.
Kumar said it should be noted that the study was just nine people with sleep apnea versus nine healthy people as the control group, so it was a relatively small study. Researchers now plan to begin a study which will look at new strategies of helping or overcoming the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier.