A recent review of the literature in the Journal of the American Dental Association concluded that episodes of hypoxia (low oxygen levels) due to sleep-breathing problems can lead to permanent brain damage, and can even occur in early childhood. These findings are not too surprising, with a number of studies in recent years that support this finding. What’s troubling, however, is that no one is making the possible connection between brain injury due to sleep apnea and other well known neurologic conditions such as ADHD and Alzheimer’s.
Numerous studies have shown that sleep apnea patients have more areas of injured or dead brain tissue than patients without sleep apnea. This can occur in the gray and white matter (which serve memory and cognition), and even in the lower areas that control breathing, sensation and movement. One sleep researcher at a meeting that I went to many years ago stated that in young children who undergo tonsillectomies for obstructive sleep apnea, they catch up pretty dramatically in terms of cognition, memory, reaction times and intelligence scores. But they never catch up fully with age matched control children that don’t have obstructive sleep apnea. What this implies is that there may be a slight, but permanent brain injury.