Children with sleep apnea have lesser gray matter, finds study

Children with sleep apnea have lesser gray matter, finds study

Little John is a bundle of joy for his parents, a blessing for all those close to the family, and an absolute delight to be around. He is an energetic kid, who loves being out and about, and is quite liked by the neighbors.

However, off late, John has started staying in his bed, and sleeping longer hours than what could be considered normal. His parents are worried, as he snores loudly, and often gasps for air while sleeping. Finally, after observing the situation for some time, his parents consulted a doctor. A careful observation of his sleeping patterns led the doctor to conclude that the child suffered from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

As per the American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA), one to four percent of children, aged between 2 and 8 years are affected by sleep apnea. Experts say that while some affected children may grow out of their symptoms, there seems to be a pertinent connection between the sleep disturbances and delayed neuronal growth in developing brains.

Sleep apnea connected with gray matter loss

A recent study, published in the journal Scientific Reports in March 2017, compared a sample size of 16 children with OSA aged between 7 and 11 years with moderate to severe sleep apnea to children from the same age group not afflicted by the disorder. Each of them had to undergo MRI brain scans, neuro-cognitive testing and had their sleeping patterns monitored.

The results were then compared with nine healthy children of the same ethnicity, weight, and age who didn’t have OSA. In addition, they were also compared with 191 MRI scans of children who constituted the existing pediatric-MRI database compiled by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

It was found that there was a significant reduction in the gray matter in various regions of the brain in children with sleep apnea. These brain cells are usually involved in the emotions, memory, perception, speech, self-control and decision-making.

The various areas of the brain that were affected included:

  • Prefrontal cortices, responsible for personality, complex behaviors and planning.
  • Frontal cortices, known for controlling problem-solving, movement, language, memory, impulse control and judgment.
  • Temporal lobe, responsible for controlling selective listening and hearing.
  • Parietal cortices, known for controlling sensory input integration.
  • Brainstem, responsible for respiratory and cardiovascular function control.

According to Leila Kherandish-Gozal, one of the lead authors of the study, MD and director of pediatric clinical sleep research at the University of Chicago, though the researchers do not yet have an exact guide that can correlate loss of gray matter with specific cognitive deficits, they feel that there is strong evidence of extensive neuronal damage or loss compared to children not affected with OSA

More research needed to study effect of reduction of gray matter

David Gozal, co-author and MD, professor of pediatrics, University of Chicago clarified that though the MRI scans gave an idea of the differences in the volume of gray matter, they were inconclusive as far as answering what happens to the affected neurons at a cellular level is concerned. He further added that better scan resolutions would be needed to determine whether the brain cells had just shrunk or had been completely lost.

The researchers also mentioned that the consequences of this loss are difficult to measure. Further, the children studied for this research were too young and the link between gray matter and intelligence have so far only been studied in children at an average of 15.4 years. The authors said that the exact nature of this phenomena and whether it can be reversed is yet to be explored. However, since gray matter reduction can impact brain function and so cognitive development, therefore, more in-depth research is needed.

Help is available

Sleep apnea can be a debilitating illness to live with, it is, therefore, necessary to seek help early so that the condition can be detected and dealt with immediately.

Sovereign Health is one of the finest mental health centers in California and offers a wide variety of treatment options, as well as a holistic environment for patients with mental health disorders to make a speedy recovery.

If you or your loved one is suffering from such a condition, call our 24/7 helpline number 866-973-7164 for further assistance. You can also chat online with our medical experts for more information on mental health facilities in California.

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