Obstructive Sleep Apnea and the Brain: a Focus on Gray and White Matter Structure

Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2021 Feb 14;21(3):11. doi: 10.1007/s11910-021-01094-2.


Purpose of review: Obstructive sleep apnea is extremely prevalent in the elderly and may precipitate dementia. We review recent advances on gray and white matter structure in obstructive sleep apnea, the impact of treatment, and potential pathological and neurodegenerative processes underlying brain structural changes.

Recent findings: Two opposite patterns are observed in neuroimaging studies of obstructive sleep apnea. One may indicate cellular damage (gray matter atrophy, higher white matter hyperintensity burden, lower white matter fractional anisotropy, higher water diffusivities), while the other (gray matter hypertrophy, restricted white matter diffusivities) may reflect transitory responses, such as intracellular edema, reactive gliosis or compensatory structural changes. Treating obstructive sleep apnea could partly reverse these structural changes. Structural alterations related to obstructive sleep apnea may follow a multi-determined biphasic pattern depending on numerous factors (e.g. severity, symptomatology, age) that could tip the scale toward neurodegeneration and need to be investigated by longitudinal studies.

Keywords: Gray matter; Magnetic resonance imaging; Obstructive sleep apnea; Sleep-disordered breathing; White matter; White matter hyperintensities.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Gray Matter / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive* / diagnostic imaging
  • White Matter* / diagnostic imaging