Brain Harmed by Untreated Sleep Apnea

Untreated sleep apnea in children can harm brain cells tied to cognition and mood says a March 2017 study by the University of Chicago.

Significant reductions in gray matter were found in children 7 to 11 years old who had moderate to severe sleep apnea. The study compared children who were the same age who slept normally against those with sleep apnea. The reductions were in the most crucial, cognitive parts of the brain according to the study. According to the University of Chicago Medical Center:

The finding points to connections between this common sleep disturbance and the loss of neurons or delayed neuronal growth in the developing brain. 

The finding points to a strong connection between this common sleep disturbance, which affects up to five percent of all children, and the loss of neurons or delayed neuronal growth in the developing brain. This extensive reduction of gray matter in children with a treatable disorder provides one more reason for parents of children with symptoms of sleep apnea to consider early detection and therapy.

“The images of gray matter changes are striking,” said one of the study’s senior authors, Leila Kheirandish-Gozal, MD, director of pediatric clinical sleep research at the University of Chicago. “We do not yet have a precise guide to correlate loss of gray matter with specific cognitive deficits, but there is clear evidence of widespread neuronal damage or loss compared to the general population.”

What did the study look at?

The study compared scans and neuro-cognitive test results with MTI images. The children with OSA had reductions in the volume of gray matter. This was in multiple parts of the brain, including those affecting cognitive function according to the study.

They found reductions in the volume of gray matter in multiple regions of the brains of children with OSA. These included the frontal cortices (which handle movement, problem solving, memory, language, judgement and impulse control), the prefrontal cortices (complex behaviors, planning, personality), parietal cortices (integrating sensory input), temporal lobe (hearing and selective listening) and the brainstem (controlling cardiovascular and respiratory functions).

Although these gray matter reductions were rather extensive, the direct consequences can be difficult to measure.

“MRI scans give us a bird’s eye view of the apnea-related difference in volume of various parts of the brain, but they don’t tell us, at the cellular level, what happened to the affected neurons or when,” said co-author David Gozal, MD, professor of pediatrics, University of Chicago. “The scans don’t have the resolution to determine whether brain cells have shrunk or been lost completely,” he added. “We can’t tell exactly when the damage occurred. But previous studies from our group showed that we can connect the severity of the disease with the extent of the cognitive deficits, when such deficits are detectable.”

What this means in terms of IQ?

The study goes on to outline what that means. In essence, an IQ score may be reduced by 8 to 10 points. A lower IQ is not something any parent wants for their children.

“The exact nature of the gray matter reductions and their potential reversibility remain virtually unexplored,” the authors conclude, but “altered regional gray matter is likely impacting brain functions, and hence cognitive developmental potential may be at risk.” This, they suggest, should prompt “intensive future research efforts in this direction.”

There is not enough research yet to know all of the implications of what sleep apnea can do to a child’s developmental brain.  However, there is enough evidence to show that children who suffer from sleep apnea should be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.

Call Dr. Greenbaum today to schedule an appointment if you think your child suffers from a sleep disorder.

Source: University of Chicago Medical Center. “Untreated sleep apnea in children can harm brain cells tied to cognition and mood: MRI scans link chronically disrupted sleep to widespread brain cell damage.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 March 2017. <>.