Obstructive sleep apnoea and the autonomic nervous system

Sleep Med Rev. 1998 May;2(2):69-92. doi: 10.1016/s1087-0792(98)90001-6.


Understanding of the pathophysiology of obstructive sleep apnoea, a common yet relatively newly recognized condition, has advanced rapidly in recent years. This condition produces major acute haemodynamic changes and causal relationships with hypertension and cardiovascular morbidity have been proposed. The role that the autonomic nervous system plays in mediating these cardiovascular changes has been the focus of intensive research activity and the development of few techniques in physiological monitoring, such as spectral analysis of heart rate variability, Finapres blood pressure monitoring, measurement of muscle sympathetic nerve activity, radionuclide tests and animal models of obstructive sleep apnoea have substantially increased the knowledge base. The acute haemodynamic changes are associated with high levels of sympathetic discharge and with fluctuating parasympathetic activity. There are also chronic changes in baroreceptor and chemoreceptor reflexes associated with an increase in baseline daytime sympathetic activity and abnormal vagal reflex responses to voluntary respiratory manoeuvres. These acute autonomic changes appear to be provoked by a combination of stimuli triggered by hypoxaemia, upper airway responses, ventilatory changes and arousal. The mechanisms of the chronic autonomic changes are less clear; it is likely that recurrent hypoxaemia is important, but the roles of recurrent ventilatory stress and arousal are not clear. Normalizing respiration with CPAP therapy prevents the acute cardiovascular changes and reduces the acute sympathetic over-activity, and in compliant patients, restores abnormal vagal responses to normal and reduces excess chronic sympathetic activity. Whether or not this produces a reduction in long-term cardiovascular morbidity is not established.