Neurobehavioral effects of obstructive sleep apnea: an overview and heuristic model

Curr Opin Pulm Med. 2005 Nov;11(6):494-500. doi: 10.1097/01.mcp.0000183059.52924.39.


Purpose of review: Obstructive sleep apnea can cause significant daytime behavioral and adaptive deficits, conventionally called 'neurobehavioral' because they are presumed to be mediated by the brain. The past few years have witnessed a marked increase in research into the neurobehavioral effects of obstructive sleep apnea, making it difficult for researchers and clinicians to stay abreast of the field. This article summarizes recent findings on the neurobehavioral effects of adult and pediatric obstructive sleep apnea, and presents a heuristic model to guide future research and clinical conceptualizations.

Recent findings: Recent publications have suggested overlapping but distinct neurobehavioral deficits that tend to accompany obstructive sleep apnea in the adult versus childhood years. There have been exciting new developments into the mechanisms by which obstructive sleep apnea may result in these deficits, including findings based upon advanced neuroimaging tools and carefully controlled animal research. There has also been accumulating evidence for potential moderators of morbidity; that is, factors that alter the nature or severity of neurobehavioral deficit resulting from obstructive sleep apnea. Task- and context-related factors that may affect outcome have been identified, as have potential markers for individual risk and resiliency.

Summary: The relation between obstructive sleep apnea and neurobehavioral deficit is probably not dependent on a single mediating mechanism, nor is it invariant across individuals. In outlining several potential moderating factors, the model presented here was designed to provide a guide for future research and a way of thinking about obstructive sleep apnea that better captures the wide variation in neurobehavioral outcome seen by practicing clinicians.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology
  • Behavioral Symptoms / etiology*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Risk Factors
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / complications*
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / physiopathology
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / psychology