For the first time, UCLA researchers have discovered that people with sleep apnea show tissue loss in brain regions that help store memory. Reported in the June 27 edition of the journal Neuroscience Letters, the findings emphasize the importance of early detection of the disorder, which afflicts an estimated 20 million Americans.
Sleep apnea occurs when a blocked airway repeatedly halts the sleeper's breathing, resulting in loud bursts of snoring and chronic daytime fatigue. Memory loss and difficulty focusing are also common complaints. Prior studies have linked the disorder to a higher risk of stroke, heart disease and diabetes.
"Our findings demonstrate that impaired breathing during sleep can lead to a serious brain injury that disrupts memory and thinking," said principal investigator Ronald Harper, a distinguished professor of neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
The study focused on structures called mammillary bodies, so named because they resemble small breasts, on the underside of the brain.
The UCLA team scanned the brains of 43 sleep apnea patients, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to collect high-resolution images of the entire brain, including slices of the mammillary bodies.
The structures' small size and proximity to bone and fluid make them difficult to measure by conventional MRI. So the researchers manually traced the mammillary bodies from the high-resolution scans and calculated their volumes from the hand-drawn outlines.
When they compared the results to images of 66 control subjects matched for age and gender, the scientists discovered that the sleep apnea patients' mammillary bodies were nearly 20 percent smaller, particularly on the left side.
"The findings are important because patients suffering memory loss from other syndromes, such as alcoholism or Alzheimer disease, also show shrunken mammillary bodies," said lead a
|Contact: Elaine Schmidt|
University of California - Los Angeles