Brain scanning technologies have been used for research and for clinical purposes for many years. Originally, we were only able to obtain measurements of structural components of the brain, like the size and shape of structures. These measurements are very useful, as they degeneration or structural abnormalities. However, our brains also have interesting functional components. Specifically, during a “resting state” period when we are thinking of nothing in particular, there are specific brain region activations occurring. There are a few regions that are often activated at the same time and to the same degree, suggesting these regions are actually working together. Sometimes, though, these regions will “decouple,” meaning one region will be less activated than usual. Untreated sleep apnea has been shown to contribute to this decoupling.
Given these facts, a study was created where a group of untreated sleep apnea sufferers were examined to see whether sleep apnea treatment (CPAP) could normalize brain function. The experimental group was divided between those on authentic CPAP and those on “sham” CPAP, which is a placebo machine that looks, feels and sounds like a real CPAP. These two groups were placed in an fMRI machine and resting state areas were scanned. After 2 months of CPAP treatment, subjects were scanned again and pre- and post-CPAP scans were compared between groups and with a group of healthy controls.
When comparing the sleep apnea group (pre-treatment) with a control group of non-sleep apnea subjects, results showed in the apnea subjects there was a “decoupling” of brain regions. This decoupling disappeared, though, after 2 months of treatment. When comparing the group who was treated with real CPAP to themselves before they were treated, results showed an increased activation globally, meaning additional brain regions had increased in activation. In other words, there was more overall brain activity. In the sham group, however, there was no difference between the subjects and themselves at baseline, which was expected since they were not on any real sleep apnea treatment1.
Although there is speculation about what the “resting state” network actually means, accumulating evidence suggests that co-activation of regions during the resting state and during active thinking is indicative of brain health. This study shows that CPAP treatment improves brain functioning, visible using cutting-edge technological scanning. The solution is clear – stick to your PAP treatment!
1. Prilipko O, Huynh N, Schwartz S, Tantrakul V, Kushida C, et al. (2012) The Effects of CPAP Treatment on Task Positive and Default Mode Networks in Obstructive Sleep Apnea Patients: An fMRI Study. PLoS ONE 7(12): e47433. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047433