Identification of a pharmacological target for genioglossus reactivation throughout sleep

Sleep. 2014 Jan 1;37(1):41-50. doi: 10.5665/sleep.3304.


Study objectives: Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a significant public health problem caused by repeated episodes of upper airway closure that occur only during sleep. Attempts to treat OSA pharmacologically have been unsuccessful because there has not been identification of a target operating at cranial motor nuclei, blockade of which can reactivate pharyngeal muscle activity throughout sleep. Increasing potassium conductance is a common mechanism by which state-dependent neuromodulators reduce motoneuron excitability. Therefore, we aimed to determine if potassium channel blockade is an effective strategy to reactivate the pharyngeal musculature throughout sleep.

Design participants and interventions: In rats chronically instrumented for recording sleep-wake states and respiratory motor activities, we locally microperfused pharmacological agents into the hypoglossal motor pool to modulate potassium channels of three major classes: inwardly rectifying, two-pore domain, and voltage-gated.

Measurements and results: Microperfusion of the inwardly rectifying potassium channel blocker, barium, as well as the voltage-gated potassium channel blockers, tetraethylammonium and 4-aminopyridine, increased tonic and respiratory-related genioglossus activities throughout nonrapid eye movement (non-REM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to 133-300% of levels present during baseline wakefulness. In contrast, microperfusion of methanandamide (TWIK-related acid-sensitive potassium [TASK] channel blocker/cannabinoid receptor agonist) activated genioglossus in wakefulness but not in sleep.

Conclusions: These findings establish proof-of-principle that targeted blockade of certain potassium channels at the hypoglossal motor pool is an effective strategy for reversing upper airway hypotonia and causing sustained reactivation of genioglossus throughout nonrapid eye movement and rapid eye movement sleep. These findings identify an important new direction for translational approaches to the pharmacological treatment of obstructive sleep apnea.

Keywords: Animal models; genioglossus; obstructive sleep apnea; sleep; upper airway.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Barium / administration & dosage
  • Barium / pharmacology
  • Hypoglossal Nerve / drug effects*
  • Hypoglossal Nerve / physiology*
  • Male
  • Motor Neurons / drug effects
  • Motor Neurons / physiology
  • Pharyngeal Muscles / drug effects*
  • Pharyngeal Muscles / innervation*
  • Pharyngeal Muscles / physiology
  • Pharyngeal Muscles / physiopathology
  • Pharynx / drug effects
  • Pharynx / physiology
  • Pharynx / physiopathology
  • Polysomnography
  • Potassium Channel Blockers / administration & dosage
  • Potassium Channel Blockers / pharmacology*
  • Potassium Channels / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Sleep / drug effects
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / drug therapy*
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / physiopathology
  • Sleep, REM / drug effects
  • Sleep, REM / physiology
  • Tongue / drug effects
  • Tongue / innervation
  • Tongue / physiology
  • Tongue / physiopathology
  • Wakefulness / drug effects
  • Wakefulness / physiology


  • Potassium Channel Blockers
  • Potassium Channels
  • Barium