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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 10:55 GMT
Brain damage link to sleep disorder
The scientists scanned the brains of patients
Stuttering and a serious sleep disorder may both be linked to brain damage, scientists believe.

Researchers in the United States have found that patients with sleep apnoea have fewer brain cells in key areas.

They are also more likely to have had a speech impediment as a child.


This would suggest that sleep apnoea can cause permanent brain damage

Professor John Stradling, Oxford Radcliffe Trust
The researchers believe that both conditions can be attributed to damage in the brain.

Around 4% of men suffer from sleep apnoea. Sufferers snore very loudly and actually stop breathing several times a night.

Traditionally, doctors believed that the condition was caused by enlarged tonsils blocking a narrowed airway.

Brain scans

But a study by Dr Ronald Harper and colleagues at the University of California Los Angeles suggests that other factors may be to blame.

They carried out brain scans on 21 men with sleep apnoea and 21 men without the condition.

The scans revealed that men with sleep apnoea had significantly fewer brain cells in areas of the brain that control speech, movement and emotion.

The researchers also found that 38% of patients with sleep apnoea had of history of stuttering earlier in their life. This compares to just 7% of the general population.

The scientists said this indicated that the origins of the sleep disorder could lie in childhood.

Dr Harper said: "Because the sleep apnoea patients possessed speech impairment from childhood and their brain's speech centre revealed significant grey matter loss, this brain damage likely originated early in life."

They suggested speech impediments could indicate people at risk of the disorder.

"Speech impediments may prove an important diagnostic clue for assessing and treating sleep apnoea," said Dr Paul Macey, one of those involved in the study.

"In the future, doctors may monitor certain brain structures and examine children for speech or movement problems that may predict a higher sleep apnoea risk."

Further research

Professor John Stradling, who works at the Oxford Radcliffe Trust, said further research is needed before a definitive link between stuttering and sleep apnoea could be proved.

"This is a hypothesis. There is no obvious reason why there should be a link. We would need a lot more research."

Speaking to BBC News Online, Professor Stradling said the suggestion that patients with sleep apnoea suffered brain damage backed up previous findings.

"This would suggest that sleep apnoea can cause permanent brain damage. It backs up a recent UK study which found early evidence of damage to the brain.

"It suggests that sleep apnoea may cause long term problems of cognition."

The study is published in the Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

See also:

16 Apr 02 | Health
01 Aug 02 | Health
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