Sleep Apnea Closely Related to Memory Problems

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According to a new study, your ability to remember directions and location may suffer when your deep sleep is disrupted by some breathing difficulties. People suffering from sleep apnea tend to score worse on basic spatial memory tests after sleeping without any breathing aid. On the other hand, when these people use breathing aids, they score better on the tests.

According to Dr. Andrew Varga, Lead Author of the study from NYU Langone Medical Center, there’s strong evidence in different animal models that dreaming sleep or REM sleep is important for basic spatial memory. However, there’s not been enough evidence regarding human beings.

Spatial memory can help people remember directions, route to destinations and other basic tasks related to specific memory. It’s believed that most people have difficulty recalling instances and forming spatial memories if their shallow sleep and deep sleep are interrupted.

Around 18 million Americans are suffering from sleep apnea. According to the NSF or National Sleep Foundation, these people experience many pauses in their breathing. These pauses can last for several minutes. Due to this, people suffering from sleep apnea often feel tired when they’re awake.

In order to study the effects of sleep apnea on memory, the researchers at NYU Medical Center recruited 18 people, and asked them to spend two nights in the sleep center. These nights were about two weeks apart.

These volunteers slept with a CPAP machine to get rid of sleep apnea. During sleep on one night, these people slept with the machine. On the other night, the machine was either turned off or reduced during sleep to strategically induce apnea.

On each night, before going to bed, these participants were asked to focus on a video game maze. The next morning, they were supposed to complete the maze again. After sleeping with the CPAP machine, the time taken to complete the video game maze improved by almost 30%. Volunteers were even able to travel farther in the game maze, and spent much less time backtracking.

After the night when volunteers slept without the machine, they were around 4% slower at completing the video game maze. According to Dr. Varga, people showed no improvement. Some of them even got worse. Thus, it was concluded that spatial memory wasn’t good after a night with sleep apnea.

According to researchers, they’re still unsure if the bad performance was the result of disruptions caused by sleep apnea or lack of oxygen was the main culprit. Varga says the team is now focusing on figuring out whether oxygen or apnea caused the problem. The team is also trying to explore the possibility of shallow sleep affecting sleep apnea.

According to Dr. Varga, the research team hopes that the findings of the study will encourage more doctors to treat issues related to sleep apnea in the early stages. He hopes doctors won’t wait until the problem worsens.

Dr. Varga also states that sleep apnea is a common problem. It may even have a wide range of deleterious effects that can impact the overall cardiovascular health. The study suggests that sleep apnea may even have cognitive effects, which is a cause for concern.

SOURCE: The Journal of Neuroscience, online October 29, 2014.

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