Does Sleep Apnea Cause Brain Damage?

Does Sleep Apnea Cause Brain Damage?

Jun 01, 2022

Sleep apnea is a chronic condition characterized by periodic pauses in breathing during sleep. The temporal breaks are a result of a collapsed airway. Currently, the disorder affects approximately 22 million in the U.S. If not treated, it heightens the risk of other heart conditions such as stroke, high blood pressure, liver disease, type 2 diabetes, and brain damage. The condition primarily affects the elderly and overweight people.

Although there are several types of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type and has lethal consequences if left untreated. It causes abnormal relaxation of particular muscles in the throat, causing the airway to block during sleep. During the temporal pauses in breathing, your body receives periodic breaks in oxygen supply, causing detrimental effects to the body.

If you experience symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, visit a sleep apnea dentist in Wellesley, MA, such as Wellesley Dental Arts, which specializes in treating sleep disorders.

How Does Obstructive Sleep Apnea Cause Brain Damage?

Sleep apnea is a condition that affects the typical breathing pattern during sleep. The muscles responsible for opening the airways relax involuntarily, causing them to collapse and prevent airflow into the lungs. Once oxygen stops getting into the lungs, its transport into other body organs, including the brain cells, is blocked.

Oxygen is critical for the proper functioning of the brain cells. Without it, the brain cells get damaged or die slowly. Reduced blood levels in the arterial blood are known as hypoxemia, which can cause oxygen deficiency at the cellular level.

When experiencing sleep apnea, oxygen does not reach the lungs for a particular time, causing the heartbeat to slow down. Immediately the patient gasps for air, oxygen gets into the blood, and the heartbeat increases to deliver life-sustaining oxygen to all the cells. This process repeats itself again and again. It can be as many as 80 times within an hour under challenging situations.

These oxygen-deficient oxygen cycles are complicated for the brain and other critical body organs. The oxygen deficiency causes cellular damage to the brain and other organs. Sleep apnea affects the brain in several ways. They include

  • Increasing the permeability of the blood-brain barrier

The body has a blood-brain barrier mechanism responsible for conveying blood to the brain and the spinal cord. The filtration mechanism blocks harmful substances, preventing the brain from harmful bacteria, neurotoxins, chemicals, and infections.

Sleep apnea increases the permeability, thus putting the brain at risk of harmful foreign substances that can cause severe disorders such as stroke, meningitis, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and other extreme conditions.

  • Altering brain chemicals

Obstructive sleep apnea affects the presence of two critical brain chemicals. Glutamate is the most crucial neurotransmitter, while gamma-aminobutyric acid is an inhibitor to calm people. The two chemicals influence the brain’s functioning, and their alteration causes reorganization of how the brain functions.

  • Altering the functioning of the gray and white matter

OSA impacts the brain’s normal functioning because it causes injury to the white matter axons and glia, plus inflammation of the hippocampus. Gray matter is responsible for information processing and cognition, while the gray matter is responsible for communication between the brain regions.

  • Causes memory loss

Individuals suffering from sleep apnea have difficulty mapping short-term memory into long-term memory, a condition known as forgetfulness. Sleep apnea affects the brain’s mammillary bodies, responsible for memory storage.

  • Stroke

Sleep apnea affects the arteries in the brain, heightening the probability of stroke. In some instances, it causes silent stroke, with no symptoms, or the patients forget having a stroke. The silent stroke, however, causes permanent brain damage.

  • Dementia

Sleep apnea causes numerous breaks during sleep, preventing individuals from staying into deep restorative sleep as required. Low oxygen levels in the blood during sleep at night cause mini-strokes which in most cases proceed to dementia.


Since sleep apnea affects the brain, it is very lethal if left untreated. To prevent severe consequences, dentists recommend using a CPAP machine which also helps in reversing the damage done to the gray matter. The CPAP therapy helps the brain regain normal functioning since it works by controlling your breathing during deep sleep and preventing the airway from collapsing.

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