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Sleep Apnea and Brain Health

By Kim Wetmore

It is well known that sleep deprivation can cause a lack of concentration and focus.  The brain reacts and thinks noticeably slower when one is tired.  Problem solving is more difficult and learning takes more effort when a person does not get consistent adequate sleep.  Sleep apnea is a common cause for this daytime sleepiness and it turns out, sleep apnea is not doing your brain any favors.  In the area of gray matter, sleep apnea could actually reduce it!

There is hope, however.  Recently, a study was done in Italy involving 17 patients with obstructive sleep apnea and 15 people without.  It was found that patients with OSA had reductions of gray matter volume and an associated decrease in neuropsychologic performance. But after three months of CPAP therapy, the OSA patients showed a significant increase in gray matter volume and in neuropsychologic testing.  According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, gray matter refers to the cerebral cortex, where the brain does most processing of information. It has a gray appearance because it lacks the myelin insulation that makes most other parts of the brain look white.

“The increase of gray matter volume in these regions is specifically correlated with the improvement at neuropsychological tests of executive functioning and short-term memory,” says principle investigator Vincenza Castronovo, PhD, sleep laboratory coordinator at the University Vita-Salute San Raffaele and San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, Italy.  He believes measuring this increase in gray matter can actually determine the effectiveness of CPAP therapy.

“Our results also suggest that specific neuropsychological measures are valuable tools for the assessment of therapy success and can offer to patients and physicians the evidence that adherence to treatment can lead not only to clinical but also to brain-structural recovery” of people with obstructive sleep apnea, Castronovo says.

It turns out that if you think you have sleep apnea, it may not only improve your sleep and your mood to be tested and treated, it may increase the size of your brain!

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