Introduction: Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) affects approximately 10% of adults, and alters brain gray and white matter. Psychological and physiological symptoms of the disorder are sex-specific, perhaps related to greater injury occurs in female than male patients in white matter. Our objective was to identify influences of OSA separated by sex on cortical gray matter.
Methods: We assessed cortical thickness in 48 mild-severe OSA patients (mean age±std[range] = 46.5±9.0[30.8-62.7] years; apnea-hypopnea index = 32.6±21.1[6-102] events/hour; 12 female, 36 male; OSA severity: 5 mild, 18 moderate, 25 severe) and 62 controls (mean age = 47.7±8.9[30.9-65.8] years; 22 female, 40 male). All OSA patients were recently-diagnosed via polysomnography, and control subjects screened and a subset assessed with sleep studies. We used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging to identify OSA-related cortical thinning, based on a model with condition and sex as independent variables. OSA and OSA-by-sex interaction effects were assessed (P<0.05, corrected for multiple comparisons).
Results: Multiple regions of reduced cortical thickness appeared bilaterally in the superior frontal lobe in female OSA vs. all other groups. Significant thinning within the pre- and post-central gyri and the superior temporal gyrus, extending into the insula, appeared between the general OSA populations vs. control subjects. No areas showed increased thickness in OSA vs. controls or positive female OSA interaction effects.
Conclusions: Reduced cortical thickness likely represents tissue atrophy from long term injury, including death of neurons and supporting glia from repeated intermittent hypoxic exposure in OSA, although disease comordities may also contribute to thinning. Lack of polysomnography in all control subjects means results may be confounded by undiagnosed OSA. The greater cortical injury in cognitive areas of female OSA patients may underlie enhanced symptoms in that group. The thinning associated with OSA in male and females OSA patients may contribute to autonomic dysregulation and impaired upper airway sensori-motor function.