Sleep apnea, a common condition in which a person’s breathing stops multiple times during the night, wreaks havoc on sleep patterns and leads to daytime drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and other adverse symptoms. It also contributes to a heightened risk of serious health problems including hypertension, heart disease and stroke.

Yet until recently, little has been understood about sleep apnea’s effects on brain chemistry and brain activity. The findings of a new study conducted at UCLA indicate that sleep apnea triggers drastic swings in two particular brain chemicals: glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Man snoring in bed

What are GABA and Glutamate?

GABA and glutamate are both neurotransmitters that play significant roles in the central nervous system. And while GABA is synthesized in the brain from glutamate, the two chemicals have opposing effects on brain activity.

GABA inhibits the relay of some nerve impulses, and essentially pumps the brakes on brain activity; it has a symbiotic relationship with other neurotransmitters in allowing us to relax and sleep. Glutamate, on the flip side, acts as an accelerator.

At healthily functioning levels, GABA and glutamate help maintain balanced brain activity. Excessive glutamate levels, however, have been associated with brain damage.

Sleep Apnea and Neuro Nightmares

Sleep apnea seems to provoke a major decrease in GABA and a sizable spike in glutamate, which sets brain activity reeling while the body is otherwise trying to rest. According to Paul Macey, UCLA professor and the study’s lead researcher, scientists anticipated the glutamate increase because “we have already seen brain damage from sleep apnea.”

“What we were surprised to see was the drop in GABA,” he stated in a press release announcing the study’s publication in the Journal of Sleep Research. “That made us realize that there must be a reorganization of how the brain is working.”

The findings may prove useful in other ongoing research examining the link between sleep apnea and depression. Depression is common among those with sleep apnea, and its severity is affected in part by levels of dopamine and serotonin, which are also neurotransmitters that have relationships with GABA and glutamate within the central nervous system.

Treating Sleep Apnea

Although untreated sleep apnea can have scary consequences, there are multiple treatment options available.

The continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, device is the old standby when it comes to managing sleep apnea. CPAP machines administer a continuous airflow via a mask to help sleep apnea sufferers maintain an open air passage and receive sufficient oxygen while they sleep. Though CPAP is effective when used regularly, some patients find the masks cumbersome and discontinue treatment.

But CPAP is not the only option. An increasing number of people with sleep apnea have successfully restored healthy sleep with the use of oral appliances. These form-fitting devices are placed snugly over your teeth to help you maintain optimal bite and jaw positions as you sleep, which promotes a clear airway.

If you live in the Denver area and would like to learn more about sleep apnea diagnosis and treatment, please call (303) 691-0267 to schedule your appointment with a sleep dentist at TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado.