Researchers at the UCLA School of Nursing conducting a study to better understand why sleep apnea sufferers develop issues with memory, decision–making, depression, stress, and poor concentration during waking time found these symptoms are related to a specific chemical imbalance of the brain.
The research focused on a brain region called the insula that regulates emotion, thinking, and physical functions like blood pressure and perspiration. Their research revealed people with sleep apnea had irregular levels of two important brain chemicals capable of having a large effect on waking behaviors and mood: glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
Scientists say GABA acts as an inhibitor in the brain, affecting endorphins and mood by slowing things down like a natural tranquilizer that calms emotions and senses. However, glutamate is a stimulator that when levels are high causes the brain to stress. When levels of glutamate are unusually high it causes decreased brain function and may also be harmful to nerves and neurons.
“In previous studies, we’ve seen structural changes in the brain due to sleep apnea, but in this study we actually found substantial differences in these two chemicals that influence how the brain is working,” Paul Macey, the lead researcher on the study and associate professor at UCLA Nursing, said in a press release. He added that, in some ways, this is a good thing. “In contrast with damage, if something is working differently, we can potentially fix it.”