Is a Sleep Disorder Harming Your Child's Brain?

Karen Barrow

A sleep disorder that often goes undiagnosed may be causing brain damage in children, say researchers.

Obstructive sleep apnea, which is more commonly known as an adult disorder, occurs when the soft part of the throat collapses and blocks the airway during sleep. This causes you to stop breathing and triggers the body to wake up slightly so you can start breathing again. This can occur hundreds of times a night, with the sleeper never realizing.

For the first time, however, researchers from Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore, Md. have found that children with obstructive sleep apnea, which occurs in about 2 percent of all children in the United States, may develop brain damage as a result of their disorder.

"This should be a wake-up call to both parents and doctors that undiagnosed or untreated sleep apnea might hurt children's brains," said Dr. Ann Halbower, lead study author and lung specialist at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center in a press release.

Halbower and colleagues compared MRI images of the brains of 19 children with severe obstructive sleep apnea to 12 children without this disorder. It was apparent from these scans that those children with obstructive sleep apnea had differences in two regions of the brain: the hippocampus, which is integral to learning and memory, and the right frontal cortex, which controls higher-level thinking.

"This is truly concerning because we saw changes that suggest brain injury in areas of the brain that house critical cognitive functions, such as attention, learning and working memory," said Halbower.

To further look at the cognitive effects that obstructive sleep apnea may have on children, the researchers gave each child involved in the study IQ tests to measure verbal, memory and thinking abilities.

The children with obstructive sleep apnea had an average IQ test score of 85, while the children without the disorder scored 101 on average. The children with obstructive sleep apnea also scored lower on tests of verbal abilities.

The interrupted sleep and oxygen deprivation that obstructive sleep apnea causes has already been linked to cardiovascular problems as well as memory deficits in adults. But this is the first time that actual brain damage has been identified in children.

The team hopes to determine if treatment for obstructive sleep apnea will help to reverse the effects of the disorder on the brain. This is important, since parts of the brain continue to mature well past 30 years of age, any damage early on could mean lasting problems for children with the disorder.

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