Obstructive sleep apnea: brain structural changes and neurocognitive function before and after treatment

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2011 May 15;183(10):1419-26. doi: 10.1164/rccm.201005-0693OC. Epub 2010 Oct 29.


Rationale: Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is commonly associated with neurocognitive impairments that have not been consistently related to specific brain structure abnormalities. Knowledge of the brain structures involved in OSA and the corresponding functional implications could provide clues to the pathogenesis of cognitive impairment and its reversibility in this disorder.

Objectives: To investigate the cognitive deficits and the corresponding brain morphology changes in OSA, and the modifications after treatment, using combined neuropsychologic testing and voxel-based morphometry.

Methods: A total of 17 patients treatment-naive to sleep apnea and 15 age-matched healthy control subjects underwent a sleep study, cognitive tests, and magnetic resonance imaging. After 3 months of treatment, cognitive and imaging data were collected to assess therapy efficacy.

Measurements and main results: Neuropsychologic results in pretreatment OSA showed impairments in most cognitive areas, and in mood and sleepiness. These impairments were associated with focal reductions of gray-matter volume in the left hippocampus (entorhinal cortex), left posterior parietal cortex, and right superior frontal gyrus. After treatment, we observed significant improvements involving memory, attention, and executive-functioning that paralleled gray-matter volume increases in hippocampal and frontal structures.

Conclusions: The cognitive and structural deficits in OSA may be secondary to sleep deprivation and repetitive nocturnal intermittent hypoxemia. These negative effects may be recovered by consistent and thorough treatment. Our findings highlight the importance of early diagnosis and successful treatment of this disorder.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Cognition Disorders / complications
  • Cognition Disorders / pathology*
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology
  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term
  • Middle Aged
  • Mood Disorders / physiopathology
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / pathology*
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / physiopathology
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / therapy*
  • Treatment Outcome