Media Releases

Brain can learn to overcome sleep apnea: U of T scientist

February 1, 2011

TORONTO, ON – New research from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to could pro­vide some rest­ful nights for the 18 mil­lion North Amer­i­cans who suf­fer from obstruc­tive sleep apnea.

In a recent study that appeared in the Jour­nal of Neu­ro­science, sci­en­tists from the Uni­ver­si­ty demon­strat­ed that repeat­ed obstruc­tion of the air­ways requires release of the brain chem­i­cal nora­dren­a­line. The release of this chem­i­cal helps the brain learn to breathe more effec­tive­ly and pur­pose­ful­ly.

“What we showed is that repeat­ed dis­rup­tion of nor­mal lung activ­i­ty – what hap­pens dur­ing sleep apnea – trig­gers a form of learn­ing that helps you breathe bet­ter. This type of brain plas­tic­i­ty could be har­nessed to help over­come the breath­ing insuf­fi­cien­cy that typ­i­fies sleep apnea” says Dr. John Peev­er, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of neu­ro­science and lead author of the study.

In order to mim­ic the expe­ri­ence of severe sleep apnea, the sci­en­tists induced short 15-sec­ond apneas in sedat­ed rats by repeat­ed­ly restrict­ing air­flow into the lungs. They found repeat­ed apneas caused the brain to pro­gres­sive­ly trig­ger more force­ful con­trac­tion of the res­pi­ra­to­ry mus­cles, which caused an increase in breath­ing. This increase in breath­ing last­ed for over an hour.

Peev­er says it seems the brain is using the unwant­ed side-effects of sleep apnea to help it learn to pre­vent future apneas by increas­ing the depth of breath­ing.

This study also pin­point­ed the brain chem­i­cal that allows this type of plas­tic­i­ty to occur.  They found that nora­dren­a­line is required in the case of repeat­ed apneas to cause brain plas­tic­i­ty and enhance breath­ing.

These find­ings are impor­tant because they sug­gest that arti­fi­cial manip­u­la­tion with com­mon drugs that affect nora­dren­a­line lev­els in the brain could also help improve breath­ing in patients suf­fer­ing from sleep apnea. This work could serve as the poten­tial basis for devel­op­ing the long sought after pill for sleep apnea.


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

John Peev­er
Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor
Depart­ment of Cell and Sys­tems Biol­o­gy
Office: 416–946-5564
Cell: 647–207-7920

Michael Kennedy
Media Rela­tions Assis­tant