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Untreated Sleep Apnea Could Cause Brain Damage in Children

New research suggests that children suffering from untreated obstructive sleep apnea show a significant reduction in gray matter of the brain. The study conducted by the University of Chicago Medical Center and published in the journal, Scientific Reports, conveys that "there is clear evidence of widespread neuronal damage or loss compared to the general population." [1] The findings of this recent study are especially troubling as it’s estimated that currently, three percent of children suffer from sleep apnea.

The University of Chicago Medical Center study analyzed 16 children with OSA and evaluated their sleep patterns overnight in its pediatric sleep laboratory. Children were administered neuro-cognitive testing and underwent brain scans with a non-invasive MRI. These results were compared with MRI images from nine healthy children of the same age, gender, ethnicity and weight, who did not suffer from sleep apnea.  

Through analysis and comparison, researchers found significant reductions in the volume of gray matter. More specifically, these reductions were in parts of the brain that "included the frontal cortices (which handle movement, problem solving, memory, language, judgement and impulse control), the prefrontal cortices (complex behaviors, planning, personality), parietal cortices (integrating sensory input), temporal lobe (hearing and selective listening) and the brainstem (controlling cardiovascular and respiratory functions)."[1]

Gray matter is compromised of the "brain cells involved in movement, memory, emotions, speech, perception, decision-making and self-control," [1] so damage to this kind of brain matter can lead to cognitive and behavioral issues in children.  

Pediatric sleep apnea often goes untreated because parents don’t know the signs. Additionally, many of the symptoms can be associated with other health issues, so the signs are easy to attribute to another unrelated condition. Kids Health, an affiliate of Nemours, a nonprofit pediatric health system, cites these major symptoms of pediatric sleep apnea:

  • Snoring, often associated with pauses, snorts, or gasps
  • Heavy breathing while sleeping
  • Very restless sleep and sleeping in unusual positions
  • Bedwetting (especially if a child previously stayed dry at night)
  • Daytime sleepiness or behavioral problems

Dr. David Buck, a neuromuscular dentist in Washington state, specializes in treating patients with sleep apnea. He firmly believes that things that disturb sleep, like sleep apnea, are extremely harmful to a child’s overall development.

"No child should be snoring at night," Buck said. "If they are, they’re starving for oxygen. That has multiple implications on their growth, development and their cognitive functioning. We know that bedwetting, behavioral problems and failure to thrive and grow all relate or can relate to disrupted sleep."

To treat sleep apnea effectively in children, it’s important to understand that mouth-breathing is often the root of the problem, and unfortunately, it’s quite common.

"Out of habit and partially out of necessity, children sleep with their mouths open and mouth breathe," Buck said.  

In contrast, nasal breathing is superior to mouth-breathing and chock full of many benefits that support a healthy and functional breathing system. According to Buck, nasal breathing is more beneficial because it encourages healthy facial development and teeth alignment. When the mouth is closed, the tongue is in its proper position on the roof of the mouth. This position allows the jaw to grow and expand in a way that accommodates all the teeth.

While snoring may seem like a harmless sleeping habit, it can be harmful in the long term. Recent studies also suggest that children who suffer from sleep apnea are at an increased risk of depression. Given the recent findings of the University of Chicago study, it’s even more crucial for parents to seek immediate treatment if they suspect their child may be suffering from sleep apnea.     



[1] University of Chicago Medical Center. "Untreated sleep apnea in children can harm brain cells tied to cognition and mood: MRI scans link chronically disrupted sleep to widespread brain cell damage." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 March 2017.


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