A clinical study of patients with sleep apnea has been initiated by researchers at the School of Biomedical Sciences and the Queensland Brain Institute, part of the University of Queensland. Initial research prior to the study revealed there may be a link between inadequate oxygen levels during sleep and damage caused to the brain, which increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The study will focus on patients aged 55-75, assessing whether using a (CPAP) ventilator, a common treatment for sleep apnea, can stop or slow brain degeneration associated with inadequate oxygen intake during sleep, and subsequently reduce the associated risk of dementia.

Professor Elizabeth Coulson, who was leading the study, says:

“Those who suffer from sleep apnea that resulted in hypoxia – lower levels of oxygen in the blood – are up to three times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.”

She added that the researchers involved in the study have been investigating the mechanisms by which this occurs, finding that hypoxia leads to the degeneration of an area of the brain important for attention and learning.

Shared support for the prospects of these findings

Fellow researcher, Queensland Brain Institute Director, Professor Pankaj Sah, says the research could lead to early intervention in patients with sleep apnoea.

“Sleep disturbances can occur up to ten years prior to Alzheimer’s disease,” Professor Sah explains.

“Considering that Alzheimer’s affects roughly one-third of the elderly population, this important research may inform preventative public health measures in the future.”

Chief Medical Advisor for Dementia Australia, Associate Professor Michael Woodward, has welcomed the study and its potential to reduce the risk for certain groups of people developing Alzheimer’s in the future.

“There is some very important research being done and interventions are being looked at,” he explains.

“Anything that reduces the risk is very exciting, especially when we know that there are 425,000 Australians currently living with Alzheimer’s, with the numbers expected to rise to around one million by 2050.”

“This is a huge proportion of our community and anything we can do to reduce the numbers and the risks is great.”

Caution for over-diagnosis in some clinics

While sharing his delight, Associate Professor Woodward also shared his concern that there is the potential for some sleep apnea clinics to over-diagnose and urged people to be careful about finding out if they do in fact have obstructive sleep apnoea.

The initial research has been funded by the NHMRC, with the current clinical trial being partially funded by the Mason Foundation.

Professor Coulson says the next stage of research involves following patients with sleep apnea over an extended period of time to determine whether CPAP protects against cognitive decline.

Information from Queensland Brain Institute and School of Biomedical Sciences.