Sleep Apnea Causes Brain Damage

A new study in the journal Sleep revealed that using special MRI imaging techniques, untreated sleep apnea patients have significantly decreased concentrations of gray matter in certain predictable areas of the brain. This means that the density of neurons is much lower than normal. The average AHI was 52, and on initial inspection of the MRI, there were no obvious structural abnormalities, with no differences in the total volume. However, gray matter density was significantly lower for sleep apnea patients in various areas of the brain that serves important functions such as memory, breathing, cardiovascular function, and autonomic function.

This study complements a prior study that showed that OSA patients have multiple dysfunctional areas of the brain.

I think the implications of this study along with various other similar studies are profound. What this means is that if you have obstructive sleep apnea, you can literally kill off certain parts of  your brain, that preferentially control your memory, executive function, your breathing patterns, and even your your heart rate. Could this be an alternate explanation for central sleep apnea? Maybe this is also why not all patients that use CPAP feel significantly better—perhaps the damage is irreversible. What's frightening is that you can suffer permanent brain damage long before your sleep apnea is even picked up and treated. 

Take a look at the abstract and read the paper if possible. What do you think about these findings? Please enter your opinions in the text box below.

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16 thoughts on “Sleep Apnea Causes Brain Damage

  1. It sounds plausible to me and is consistent with my experience after years of undiagnosed sleep apnea. I have MCI including ADD and memory loss.
    The UCLA study on mammilary bodies referred to thiamine therapy for the brain. Do you think this is worth pursuing? What type of doctor would be most familiar with thiamine therapy?

  2. I am a well CPAP-treated OSA patient,  and for years ago I realised that I have had a brain injury from Obstructive Sleep Apnea. The cognitive problems in Sleep Apnea seems to be irriversible, despite 100% use every night of CPAP for 9 years.
    All the other patients I have been in contact with in Denmark ,suffers more or less from the same pattern in cognitive symptoms, as I have noticed by myself.
    Problems with short term/working memory, concentration, motivation, mood and high blod pressure.
    I think that "CPAP stops the accident", but does'nt  give you back the braincells that suffered lack of oxygen for years.
    Some Doctors seems to be aware of this and others does'nt.
    I think that the reason why the thruth about apnea, is so slow to be spread is, that in the years before we are diagnosed properly, we are alle cash cows to the medical industry, because the only treatment we are met with are drugs, drugs and drugs. Tons of medicine to controle our blood pressure, depressions, and even sleep medicin wich can kill, if you are suffering from undiscovered Apnea . The plain truth is that  no drugs can replace the lack of sleep and oxygen.   
    But despite my advice to everyone of you are, to use your CPAP every time you sleep. Believe me, It can really get a lot worse if you dont.    

  3. Thanks for writing this. I really feel as though I know so much more about this than I did before. I think the implications of this study along with various other similar studies are profound. What this means is that if you have obstructive sleep apnea, you can literally kill off certain parts of your brain, that preferentially control your memory, executive function, your breathing patterns, and even your your heart rate. Your blog really brought some things to light that I never would have thought about before reading it. You should continue this, I’m sure most people would agree you’ve got a gift. Thanks for sharing…

  4. Interesting, seems the Doctors will state the pulmary disease and or heart disease is not 100% corrected when on CPAP, but when I asked about perm brain damage (my spouse has central apnea) I am getting no where….

  5. I recently had a very minor hemorrhagic stroke and therefore an MRI. I was also diagnosed earlier this year with very long term idiopathic severe central sleep apnea. The MRI shows the Cerebral bleed of course but it also shows significant areas of damage to white matter that must have taken many years to accumulate. It could not have happened quickly without producing a very pronounced neurological deficit. It is undoubtedly a result of long term marginal hypoxia due to central apnea. I now use oxygen to sleep which completely abolishes the central apnea as it changes the eucapnic threshold via the Haldane Effect.

    There is no question that apnea, no matter how caused, will produce brain damage. The brain can be very good at hiding the damage depending on the degree of plasticity present. Those that continue to exercise their brains tend to have higher plasticity and will show less obvious deficits. The damage is still present.

  6. I neglected to mention that I also have severe dysautonomia including baroreflex failure, severe postural hypotension and severe postural orthostatic tachycardia. Sounds like the finding of damage to the autonomic nervous system is correct.

  7. Hi im a 37yr old man that was diagnoised with low oxygen levels three years ago, so i was put on a cpap machine which worked fine for the first two yr i had it. Then i started getting less and less sleep. Now i only get 3 to 4 hrs of sleep a night. Was waking up not gasping for air but short of it. Heart rate never changes when this happens but used to. Since this all started my memory gotton bad with thinking also learning new things. Cant remember things that were said 2hrs before and forget to do things or were things are placed. I have had vision changes as well as pressure in my head that has been there for 8 months. I have had mri,cTscan,eeg,emg as well as numorious blood work done and nothing is found. Ive got imuscle loss but no
    weight loss,breathing is not easy most of the time feel like i have been in a dusty field for days.Muscle stiffness and arms tinglin alot. Ive exhausted everything i had at work and lost my job, cant get unemployment or ssdi due to no diagnoises. I think im getting brain damage because of these things Lhappening. Can sleep apnea do this.

  8. Can central sleep apnea cause brain damage. I think i stop breathing in my sleep but dont know. I wake up not knowing anything at first then i realize with a big haze in my head that im in bed. I have the feeling of emptyness. I doze off only to awake to what feels like i stop breathing. Can many times of this damage the body.

  9. Not surprisingly I forgot to mention that in addition to the daily body wide pain and stiffness, I have developed progressivley worsening memory, concentration and attention problems. I have numbness and tingling in my extremities, am always cold and often feel like I have the flu even though I don’t.Some times I wake up with the choking sensation and some times I wake up and after a few seconds realize I am not breathing and have to tell myself to start breathing. I have experenced an episode of Venticular-Tachycadia during a sleep study but a cardioogist said my heart is OK. I have bradycardia, sleeping as low as 36 BPM. I have read about an autonomic nervous system problem being involved with Apnea. I had an MRI with no tumors in the brain found. I take LYRICA at bedtime and occasional Zanaflex or Xanax for muscle cramping and spasm that occurs bodywide but it’s really bad in my neck and throat. Thanks

  10. Donald Schnabel, consider supplementing with ‘Transdermal Magnesium’. Dr. Marc Sircus, OMD is a big proponent and I use it personally reduce muscle cramping. As I’m sure you know, magesium deficiencies can lead to a whole whole of cramping issues as well as impacting your heart.

    Keep fighting the good fight! Regards

  11. ive posted before and my pulmonologist says just need to get use to my machine because i dont wear it enough. well when i put on my machine i cant fall into a deeper sleep. lay there with my eyes closed it feels like. i tape recorded my self because i wanted to ask the sleep office if i was wrong with this or not? i was breathing then slowly slowed untill i stop this happens for 20 – 30 seconds repeatedly same thing over and over then my body tells itself to breath then i breath fast for a bit and for it to happen again i get a dizzy feeling laying down. Does this sound like central sleep apnea. i do not not breath normal at all when this happens. i have a remstar a flex m series with c flex. When i wake up in the morning finally i feel really stupid like my brain is fried. Any feedback would be great thanks.

  12. I had surgery Nov2005 for high grade dysplasia..cancer of eosophagus and stomach and my husband noticed that I stopped breathing a lot and gasping to breath. Anyway I was diagnosed with central apnea and it is very.severe but the hospital say I also stop breathing while awake. Over the seven years I sleep for a max of 40minutes and have upward of 58central episodes per hour also insomnia restless leg syndrome and night eating disorder. I Am now severely depressed and was recently thinking suicidal thoughts as the deprivation is making it impossible to function. I have memory

  13. Memory loss and slowness in concentration. I fall asleep within minutes of sitting down…during the day and cannot watch a full movie for all the dips in conscisness…oops spell error but too tired to solve the mistake. I just turned 46when this happened and it has been suggested that the vagus nerve may have been damaged during surgery thus the probem with brain signal getting through. I have oxygen concentrator and also a auto serv….the most advanced machine…I Am too tired to focus…sorry. I didn’t realise till researching today. That what I have is so serious….but I keep reading comments that say the patient is already severely I’ll if view have central sleep apnea…is this true?

  14. I seem to have had something wrong affecting my central nervous system since at least age 6 when I had neuropsych testing done showing that there was something going on with attention/arousal regulation. Neurologists have told me for years I have something wrong with my brain after EEGs and other tests yet they could not pinpoint exactly what. It’s like lots of circumstantial evidence but no smoking gun.

    Over the years at one time or another I’ve had headaches, complex-partial seizures, attentional disruptions, a learning disability in math, near fainting spells, brain fog, motor slowing, difficulty with fine motor function at times, difficulty walking, extreme and sudden sleepiness, chronic flu-like pain, and other symptoms; too many to count.

    Now at age 54 I am having what seems like classic symptoms of brainstem dysfunction of some kind, yet the MRI shows nothing. I had a sleep study for the first time about a month ago and the pulmonologist told me that I was not only stopping breathing 30 times per hour of sleep, but had shallow insufficient breathing which caused me to be hypoxic down to 81% and that this constituted 1/5 of my sleeping time. They even documented it while I was awake watching TV.

    I have been feeling noticeably short of breath (can’t get a deep enough breath in) intermittently for awhile. It’s obvious that this is not just sleep apnea, but what’s going on at night is just a continuation of what’s happening in my body around the clock. The pulmonologist has put in an order for oxygen but Medicare doesn’t like taking data obtained in sleep studies, so now I have to wait longer because they’re asking for pulse oximetry monitoring at home in order to “prove” I’m hypoxic enough to qualify. I’ll do it if that’s what it takes, but with my luck I’d have one night where it would be just barely not enough for Medicare’s requirements. This is the story of my life.

    This condition is wearing me out and I am tired of suffering. What really kills me is I know there’s something major going on but the erratic nature of it is showing up on some tests just enough to hint at it but obscured just enough to keep it concealed just enough not to get me the treatment I need. To me that is the definition of hell on earth.

    I see from the other posts I am not alone, but much of the time I feel like I’m stuck with this time-bomb in my brain just simmering beneath the surface and making me chronically ill. When everything doesn’t fit into a neat little box doctors start looking at you sideways and that adds insult to injury. I’m trying to hang in there but today I’m feeling especially bad. My head is hurting and has been since I woke up this morning.

    Scientists/doctors really need to study these cases that don’t show up on MRI but have all this other evidence scattered around pointing to some type of damage to the CNS. I think they need to look on a more micro level. If they don’t it leaves those of us without glaring lesions SOL. I’d really like to know if anyone is currently working on that, and if anyone can give me contact info I would greatly appreciate it.