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How sleep apnoea affects your brain

Posted by Blooms The Chemist on 16 Mar 2023

How sleep apnoea affects your brain

There are various conditions that can come as a result of sleep apnoea and sleep disorders. The lack of oxygen that obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) causes can affect the entire body1.

While you may know about many of these impacts, as sleep apnoea causes oxygen deprivation, brain damage is one of the more significant risks that can occur.

How can sleep apnoea cause brain damage?

Sleep apnoea can cause brain damage due to the oxygen being cut off from the brain while you’re sleeping. If your brain can no longer get the oxygen it needs to function, it may cause reduced brain function and damage to your brain cells.

A study investigating the damage caused by sleep apnoea showed that in particular, two significant brain chemicals were impacted2. These were gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that promotes calmness, and Glutamate, which plays a key role in memory and learning.

Patients with sleep apnoea saw a decrease in GABA, forcing the brain to reorganise its workings negatively. They also saw an increase in glutamate, causing damage to nerves and neurons.

Sleep apnoea can also impact your grey brain matter and your white brain matter, both which highly impact your alertness and moods.

Grey matter is where the majority of information processing takes place in the brain, and white matter allows different messages to pass between grey matter.

The effect that sleep apnoea has on brain matter was confirmed in a neuro-imaging study, demonstrating that the structure and integrity of multiple areas of the brain can be compromised2.

What symptoms are associated with obstructive sleep apnoea?

There are a range of symptoms associated with obstructive sleep apnoea, which we’ve listed below.

Symptoms of sleep apnoea can include3:

  • Daytime sleepiness

  • Poor concentration

  • Poor memory

  • Slow reaction times

  • Poor quality sleep

  • Mood changes

In addition to these symptoms, research from Ohio State University has also shown that patients with sleep apnoea have experienced trouble consolidating short term memories4.

If you’re suffering from severe sleep apnoea, you are likely to have 30 or more breathing interruptions an hour when you’re sleeping. In some cases, this number can go as high as 150.

As you’re no longer getting restful sleep when you’re suffering from sleep apnoea, this can contribute to high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and a range of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.

How CPAP therapy can help

Using CPAP therapy can significantly reduce the progression of brain damage in sleep apnoea sufferers.

A study that focused on 17 men with severe, untreated sleep apnoea who then had CPAP treatment for 12 months, showed astounding results.

The men with severe sleep apnoea had shown signs of impaired thinking, mood and alertness. However, after 12 months of CPAP treatment significantly improved their white brain matter damage, their mood, alertness and quality of life.

“We are seeing a consistent message that the brain can improve with treatment,” said co-principal investigator Mark Aloia, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, and Senior Director of Global Clinical Research for Philips Respironics, Inc to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

“We know that CPAP therapy keeps people breathing at night; but demonstrating effects on secondary outcomes is critical, and brain function and structure are strong secondary outcomes.”

The impact that sleep apnoea can have on your brain is why it’s crucial to get tested for sleep apnoea at your local Blooms The Chemist.

You can also take our online sleep quiz to see if the symptoms you are experiencing are putting you at high risk of sleep apnoea.


1American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Treating sleep apnea reverses brain damage, accessed 13 March 2023

2National Library of Medicine, United States, White Matter Integrity in Obstructive Sleep Apnea before and after Treatment, accessed 13 March 2023

3Better Health Victoria, Sleep Apnoea, accessed 13 March 2023

4Ohio State University, Is it dementia or the effects of sleep apnea?, accessed 13 March 2023