Does sleep deprivation make sleep apnea worse?

Over the past two decades, the prevalence of sleep apnea has become increasingly apparent. Chronic sleep deprivation resulting in daytime sleepiness is a well recognized consequence of sleep apnea. But does chronic sleep deprivation cause sleep apnea?

An article published in a recent issue of the journal Sleep (August, 2017) investigated this. Rats were assigned to three groups: one experienced chronic sleep restriction for 21 days by housing in a cage designed to limit sleep time. Previous studies have shown that the cage design results in near complete REM sleep deprivation and a 35% to 40% reduction in non-REM sleep (NREM). There were two control groups: one control group was housed in a cage designed to appear similar to the treatment cage but not notably restricting sleep, another control group was housed in a standard vivarium cage. After the 21 day period, the size of four respiratory areas (nuclei) in the brainstem were analyzed for size and number of neurons. Both the number of neurons and the size of the nuclei of the chronically sleep restricted animals were reduced as compared to either of the control groups.

Since the brainstem nuclei are part of normal breathing control, this study suggests that chronic sleep restriction may have deleterious effects on respiration. Further extrapolation is tenuous but it is not unreasonable to suspect that such chronic sleep restriction may contribute to the progression of sleep apnea since sleep apnea is known to result in sleep restriction.

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