Avoiding a Rude Awakening: Understanding the Cellular Basis of Sleep Apnea
Snoring can be hazardous to health—and not just for those who share the bed with a snorer. In fact, about four per cent of the population suffers from a form of snoring so extreme that it could actually kill them. Called obstructive sleep apnea, the condition occurs when muscles controlling respiration relax, causing the airway to close. Repeated attempts to breathe in are prevented until oxygen levels fall so low that the sleeper wakes up. At this point, muscle function and breathing go back to normal, but heart rate and blood pressure surge. And the cycle can happen hundreds of times each night.
As Canada Research Chair in Sleep and Respiratory Neurobiology, Dr. Richard Horner is trying to understand how this problem happens in the first place—a key step toward an effective treatment. Finding that treatment is no small matter—obstructive sleep apnea causes strokes and heart attacks that contribute to premature death, often when sufferers are only in their 40s or 50s. Just as seriously, the condition can lead to debilitating daytime sleepiness, one of the causes of car accidents and other injuries. In financial terms, obstructive sleep apnea costs North Americans tens of billions of dollars each year.
Horner looks to the brain seeking to understand why it signals respiratory muscles to relax. Understanding the cellular and neurological causes of sleep apnea, is a crucial first step to finally developing drugs to treat the condition. In the process of his research, Horner is also answering fundamental questions about sleep, respiration and neurobiology. His work may also shed light on other conditions involving muscle movement, including motor-neuron diseases like ALS and muscular dystrophy, as well as conditions like spinal cord injury. Even if these extra offshoots come much later, the immediate results—a better understanding of snoring, particularly in its most dangerous form—will be benefit enough.