It’s been known for quite some time that obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that affects an estimated 22 million Americans, can lead to depression, memory loss, high blood pressure and anxiety, all resulting from damage to the brain. What exactly causes this injury to the brain, however, has remained a mystery, but a recent study from UCLA sheds new light on this connection.
According to Medical Xpress, a research team led by UCLA’s Rajesh Kumar, an associate professor of anesthesiology and radiological sciences, is the first to find evidence that obstructive sleep apnea directly harms the blood-brain barrier, a network of cells that helps protect brain tissue by keeping bacteria, chemicals and infections from making their way to the brain. When the blood-brain barrier is compromised – as it often is in patients with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, meningitis, multiple sclerosis and stroke – research shows that these individuals can experience significant brain damage.
Kumar’s study, which was published in the September issue of the Journal of Neuroimaging, focused on nine obstructive sleep apnea patients and nine healthy controls. He and his colleagues found that those who suffered from untreated obstructive sleep apnea had significantly more permeable blood-brain barriers than the healthy controls.
“While previous studies have found that reduced exposure to oxygen and high blood pressure can affect the blood–brain barrier, which in turn can introduce or enhance brain tissue injury, Kumar and his colleagues are the first to show that this breakdown occurs in obstructive sleep apnea,” reports Medical Xpress.
Fortunately, there already exist strategies for repairing the blood-brain barrier function, explained Kumar, adding that this research suggests that in treating sleep apnea, it may be necessary to repair blood-brain barrier function in addition to improving breathing.