Sleep Apnea in Kids Cuts Brain Power
Study: Lower IQs and Decreased Brain Activity Seen in Kids With Obstructive Sleep Disorder
Aug. 21, 2006 -- Sleep apneain children can lead to brain cell damage and
lowered intelligence, new research suggests.
Brain imaging showed that children with untreated, severe sleepapneashow evidence of injury in the regions of the
brain responsible for learning, memory, and complex thought.
These children also had lower IQ scores and they scored lower on
standardized learning tests than children without the sleep disorder.
It is not clear if the injury is permanent or reversible with treatment for
sleep apnea, but one of the study's researchers tells WebMD that there is an
urgent need for additional research to find out.
"Sleep apnea is very treatable in children," pediatric lung
specialist Ann C. Halbower, MD, says. "If it does cause permanent
impairment in [brain] function that makes early treatment all the more
Sleep apnea is less common in children than in adults, but it is estimated
that 2% of kids in the U.S. have some form of obstructed breathing during
sleep. Enlarged tonsils and adenoids is the most common cause of sleep apnea in
children, but obesityand chronic allergiescan also be a cause.
Functional brain imaging studies in adults with sleep apnea have identified
abnormalities in three key regions of the brain associated with learning and
memory -- the frontal cortex, the cerebellum, and the hippocampus. Although
studies have also linked sleep apnea in children with memory problems, lowered
intelligence, and other behavioral issues, it has not been clear if they
experience the same brain changes as adults do.
In an effort to answer this question, Halbower and colleagues from Johns
Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore conducted specialized brain
imaging studies on children with severe sleep apnea and on children without the
disorder. They also conducted IQ tests and performed other standardized tests
designed to measure verbal performance, memory, and learning skills.
The average IQ score among the children with sleep apnea was in the
low-normal range and was 16 points lower than children without the sleep
breathing disorder (85 vs. 101). Children with sleep apnea also scored
consistently lower on the other performance tests.
The brain imaging studies in the children with sleep apnea showed decreased
activity in regions similar to those shown in adult studies.
Wake-up Call for Parents, Pediatricians
Halbower tells WebMD that the findings should serve as a wake-up call for
both parents and pediatricians about the importance of treating sleep-breathing
problems in children.
She adds that the importance of determining if the brain changes are
permanent or can be reversed with effective treatment for sleep
Surgery is the treatment of choice for kids with enlarged tonsils and
adenoids, and other treatments are available for those with restricted
nighttime breathing due to other causes.