Two papers recently published in the journal Neurology and funded by the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke have presented the first definitive links between sleep disorders and problems with brain chemistry.

The research leading up to the discovery focused on the study of 13 subjects possessing Multiple Systems Atrophy, a rare and fatal degenerative neurological disease that is generally accompanied by severe sleep disorders.

The papers, authored by lead researcher and chair of the Neurology Department Prof. Sid Gilman, focus on Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behavior Disorder, two common disorders.

“I’ve been taking care of MSA patients for quite some time … I noticed that patients with the disease had both OSA and RBD. Studying the connections between these afflictions was a prudent way to investigate sleep disorders. The literature about sleep disorders contains precious little information about neurology; it seemed worthwhile to conduct both types of studies,” Gilman said.

From the research, Gilman and his colleagues (including Prof. Ronald Chervin, director of the University Sleep Disorders Laboratory), found that the MSA patients possessed very low amounts of certain brain cells – neurons – that produce chemicals necessary to maintain normal sleep patterns; the greater their lack, the worse their sleep problems were.

“It’s exciting to be able to show this major neurochemical deficit for the first time, and confirm what other have suspected,” said Gilman in a written statement. “We don’t yet know if we will find this same effect in patients with other neurological diseases or in people who are otherwise neurologically well, but these findings are already further research opportunities,” he added.

If pursued further, Gilman’s research could prove invaluable to millions of Americans. OSA and REM sleep behavior disorder are problems that take significant tolls on a large segment of the population. OSA, which is marked by the temporary interruption of breathing upwards of a dozen times per night, may lead to excessive daytime exhaustion, decreased short-term memory and reduced reaction time. RBD, while less common, may be even more dangerous because it causes patients to attempt to act out dreams, thereby potentially placing them in harm’s way.

However concrete their findings may appear to be, Gilman and his team are careful not to claim a causal link between sleep disorders and neurochemistry. “The implications (of this research) are correlative. It is difficult to show causation in science. As far as treatment goes, we must first examine relationships between the disorder and the brain. Afterwards, it seems that it would be best to treat these disorders with a biomedical approach,” Gilman said.

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