03/24/2011 08:57 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Can Your Brain Learn to Help You Sleep Better?

One of the most frustrating conditions that keeps people from sleeping well and through the night is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Most people with OSA aren't aware that they stop breathing multiple times during the night. This situation results in fragmented, poor sleep, as well as low blood oxygen levels. OSA has been associated with an increased risk for a myriad of health problems, including hypertension, heart disease, mood and memory problems.

It's widely known in sleep medicine circles that the most common -- and helpful -- treatment we have these days for patients with OSA is the CPAP machine, short for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. The difference a CPAP machine can make for someone with sleep apnea is huge, and benefits go far beyond sleep.

The problem with CPAP therapy is that not a lot of people are good about using it on a routine basis. While I maintain that continuous use is the best way to utilize your CPAP machine, there may ultimately be another way to help those suffering from OSA: the brain.

We've all heard it, and some of us have even said it: "mind over matter." A new study from the University Toronto suggests that not only is this true, it could eventually provide relief for millions of people who face sleepless nights because of their sleep apnea. OSA is called "obstructive" because it obstructs the airways. Scientists found that this obstruction might cause you to learn to breathe more effectively. Humans are remarkably adaptive creatures, and our brains are wired for learning -- apparently even learning from the disruption of normal breathing.

The researchers from the University of Toronto suggest that the brains of people with sleep apnea are using the negative effects of OSA to learn to breathe more deeply and effectively. This is due to a brain chemical called noradrenaline, which is released during times when lung function is obstructed. This study suggests that in the future this chemical could be used to help those with OSA sleep better and breathe deeper.

This is great news for those who live with OSA because a CPAP machine is about the least sexy thing you could bring into your bedroom. Relief that comes in pill form would be much less invasive and much easier to use -- and much easier to remember to use consistently. This type of treatment is still in the dream phase, so until it becomes a reality, I encourage people with OSA to stick with the machines.

Still, it's pretty amazing what the brain can learn to do, even while we're asleep.

Sweet dreams,

Michael J. Breus, Ph.D.
The Sleep Doctor™


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