Sleep apnea treatment affects our body on a robust level by changing breathing patterns, which in turn changes other bodily functions (such as heart rate and overall oxygen levels). But are there biological effects of sleep apnea treatment on a deeper level? Could this treatment even be affecting our genes? Genes, of course, do not change over the lifespan, but the way they are expressed does change. Environmental factors, like diet or other health habits, can alter gene expression in a positive or negative way. That being said, it may be likely that the negative side effects associated with sleep apnea, such as repeated lack of oxygen and frequent awakenings, may alter our gene expression in a negative way. Until now, however, nobody had tested this theory.
A recent innovative research study set out to examine whether initiation of CPAP treatment could have a beneficial impact on gene expression. This study used 18 subjects who had been diagnosed with sleep apnea but had never before been on sleep apnea treatment. Of interest were genes affecting the transcription (expression) of white blood cells, which are crucial for maintaining a healthy immune system. Subjects underwent a scan for the expression of these before and after beginning continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment, which was used by all subjects for 14 nights.
Not surprisingly, results showed that CPAP did improve sleep apnea in these subjects. Amazingly, there indeed was a difference in expression of genes before and after CPAP treatment. Further analysis revealed that these were genes involved in the function of blood platelets, stem cell function, and also the cell cycle (which is crucial for generating new cells). Importantly, these are all cancer-related pathways, meaning perturbation of them increases the risk for developing different types of cancers1.
Recent advancements in technology allow us to do some pretty amazing things. With the assessment of gene expression, we can see how treatments work on a deeper, more complex level. This study selected only a few genes to scan and actually saw a change. Unfortunately, what they saw was that untreated sleep apnea seems to affect the gene expression in a cancer-related pathway. If a complete gene scan would have been performed, who knows what else would have been found. Also important to consider is that these subjects were only on CPAP treatment for 2 weeks! After such a short period, it is amazing that the body has already begun to restore itself to a healthy state. This makes a case for using CPAP treatment every night since it is now obvious that even treatment on a short-term scale makes a difference.
References:1. Pre-Publication Online Release, Journal Sleep: Treatment of Obstructive Sleep Apnea Alters Transcriptional Signatures in Circulating Leukocytes