Sleep apnea affects tens of millions of Americans, and its symptoms and health risks are well documented. But researchers are only beginning to understand the impacts of sleep apnea on the brain and brain function.

The results of a recent study at UCLA, however, further the knowledge about sleep apnea’s effects on brain chemistry, in particular the important neurotransmitters gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate. Sleep apnea, according to the research, causes significant swings in these brain chemicals, which may contribute to progressive brain damage.

Man sleeping in bed and holding a mobile phone

The Gift of GABA

GABA is synthesized in the brain and is a key player in the central nervous system. It hinders the transmission of certain nerve impulses within the central nervous system, and it helps to slow brain activity.

Glutamate, on the other hand, acts as an accelerator. GABA is actually produced from glutamate, which is an amino acid that aids in the synthesis of protein; previous research has shown that excess levels of glutamate can cause brain damage. At healthy levels, GABA and glutamate help regulate the effects of one another and maintain balanced brain activity.

Incidentally, a manufactured form of GABA known as gabadone has been used in some sleep aids in conjunction with the ingredient 5-hydroxytriptophan (5-HTP) to reduce the time necessary to fall asleep and improve sleep quality. The effectiveness of these “sleep in a bottle” products is questionable.

GABA and Sleep Apnea

The UCLA study indicates that sleep apnea, which is characterized by frequent breathing interruptions during sleep, prompts GABA levels to plummet and glutamate levels to jump. This, in turn, leads to dramatic swings in brain activity.

In addition to concerns about the toll this brain-chemical rollercoaster takes from sleep patterns, researchers worry these recurring fluctuations may lead to brain damage. According to UCLA professor Paul Macey, the study’s lead researcher, scientists “expected an increase in the glutamate, because it is a chemical that causes damage in high doses and we have already seen brain damage from sleep apnea.”

“What we were surprised to see,” Macey added, “was the drop in GABA. That made us realize that there must be a reorganization of how the brain is working.”

Sleep Apnea Treatment

In addition to providing new information about the link between sleep apnea and brain chemistry, the study may also complement ongoing research into sleep and depression. Depression is a common side-effect of sleep apnea, and GABA and glutamate interact with dopamine and serotonin, fellow neurotransmitters that affect sleep and mood.

Although sleep apnea can increase a person’s risk for severe health problems including high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, it is treatable. The continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device, which delivers a nonstop airflow via a mask and hose attached to a circulator, is one successful treatment option.

While CPAP is effective, some people have difficulty adjusting to wearing a mask as they sleep, and it is not the only treatment. Many sleep apnea sufferers are able to resume healthy sleep with oral appliances. These dental instruments are similar to sports mouthguards, but are custom designed to fit each patient’s unique bite and comfortably hold the jaw in proper position during sleep to promote an open air passage.

If you live in the Omaha area and you’re ready to reclaim restful sleep, please call (402) 493-4175 or contact the Advanced Dental Sleep Treatment Center online to schedule your appointment.