woman sleeping on her stomach and snoringFrom loud snoring to chronic daytime fatigue, from increased irritability to an inability to focus, the physical and mental effects of sleep apnea have long been known. Less understood, and more challenging to observe, are the chemical effects of sleep apnea in the brain.

A recent study, however, shines some light on this otherwise dark corner of sleep apnea. The research indicates that the breathing interruptions associated with sleep apnea have a profound impact on the brain chemicals gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and the much-easier-to-pronounce glutamate.


GABA is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that acts as a messenger in the transmission of signals known as synapses. So what does GABA do?

GABA, which resides in the central nervous system, has an inhibitory, calming effect on brain activity. It is produced in the brain from the aforementioned glutamate, an amino acid that plays a key role in the synthesis of protein and is — like GABA — a neurotransmitter.

GABA and Glutamate

Although glutamate is used by the brain to synthesize GABA, and glutamate is also a neurotransmitter, GABA and glutamate affect the brain differently.

While GABA slows brain activity, glutamate acts as an accelerator. Together, the two chemicals help maintain balance. But the new research suggests that sleep apnea causes dramatic fluctuations in GABA and glutamate, and influences the brain’s ability to function properly.

GABA, Glutamate and Sleep Apnea

Scientists at UCLA found that sleep apnea triggers a drop in GABA and a spike in glutamate. The result is a wild ride for the brain — and an unrestful night — in those who suffer from sleep apnea.

Of particular concern to researchers is whether these wild swings in the levels of two important brain chemicals, which recur night after night in people with sleep apnea, may cause long-term damage.

“In previous studies, we’ve seen structural changes in the brain due to sleep apnea,” said lead researcher and UCLA professor Paul Macey in a press release announcing the study’s publication in the Journal of Sleep Research, “but in this study we actually found substantial differences in these two chemicals that influence how the brain is working.”

Researchers, according to Macey, expected to witness an increase in glutamate because glutamate in high amounts has been shown to contribute to brain damage; long-term, untreated sleep apnea has also been linked to brain damage. “What we were surprised to see was the drop in GABA,” Macey said. “That made us realize that there must be a reorganization of how the brain is working.”

Sleep Apnea is Treatable

Although the dangers of sleep apnea are real, the silver lining in this somewhat dark cloud is that sleep apnea is treatable, and its potentially deadly health risks are avoidable.

CPAP, a device that helps maintain an open airway during sleep, has long been the standard in sleep apnea management. While CPAP is an effective treatment, some patients find the associated mask cumbersome and uncomfortable.

Another successful sleep apnea treatment option is a customized oral appliance. These devices are designed to fit comfortably in a patient’s mouth during sleep to provide an optimal jaw position and promote an open, continuous airflow.

If you or a loved one endures regular snoring or other symptoms of sleep apnea, please call (248) 480-0085 to schedule an appointment with a Detroit sleep dentist at the Michigan Center for TMJ & Sleep Wellness. Treatments are available to help you and your family restore healthy, restful sleep.