Study Provides Insight into Memory Loss and Sleep Apnea

High-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) recently allowed researchers to look deep into the brain of patients with sleep apnea. Left mammillary bodies, structures that lie deep in the brain, were found to be 20% smaller when compared to a control study group. Mammillary bodies are responsible for memory, and lie very close to the bone and spinal fluid, making them difficult to image with standard MRI. During a press release, Rajesh Kumar, PhD, from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and colleagues reported, “These findings are important because patients suffering from memory loss from other symptoms, such as alcoholism or Alzheimer's disease, also show shrunken mammillary bodies.” The findings are published in the June 27 issue of Neuroscience Letters.

Children and adults with sleep apnea experience interruptions in sleep patterns, as they struggle when breathing stops. The cause is usually structural, such as airway collapse, or abnormalities of the soft palate that blocks the flow of air to the lungs. There are several treatment options, but the most successful is the use of CPAP machines, which improves oxygen levels and sleep patterns, but has not been shown to treat short-term memory loss seen in sleep apnea sufferers. This study shows that sleep apnea potentially damages mammillary bodies. The significance may bring help to patients. Memory loss is successfully treated in alcoholics with large doses of Thiamine (vitamin B1). Alcoholics are known to be deficient in the essential nutrient. The hypothesis has been that brain cells recover and become useful with vitamin B1 treatment. The plan, according to the authors is to find out how we can protect against this injury [reduced mammillary-body volume]. We don’t know yet if patients with obstructive sleep apnea have low thiamine."

Ongoing studies include the link between vascular disease in diabetics as the result of increased urinary excretion of thiamine. The study was published in the August 2007 issue of Diabetologia. The current study authors speculate that inflammation occurs during sleep apnea that promotes inflammation, known to promote disease of the blood vessels.

The group plans to explore that possibility that nutritional boosts might provide protection to the brain cells during periods of hypoxia (lack of oxygen) that occur during sleep apnea. Boosting thiamine, or vitamin B1, may show promise for memory loss associated with sleep apnea, and other diseases associated with memory loss, such as Alzheimer's disease. Further studies are planned that should provide more insight.

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What This Study Means to You

Symptoms of severe vitamin B1 deficiency include fatigue, pain, heaviness, and loss of sensation in the legs that can lead to difficulty walking. Thiamine is produced by bacteria in the small intestine, and important note for anyone who thinks the intestines are nothing but a toxic storage space.

One of the richest food sources of thiamine, found in the liver, kidney, muscles, and heart, is brewer’s yeast. Nuts and legumes are also an excellent source of thiamine. Brown rice, wheatgerm, soybeans and rice brain are also rich in B1, as are green leafy vegetables. For a more complete list of foods with thiamine, visit Medline Plus.

Self-help for any illness includes proper nutrition and exercise. Patients with existing illness can benefit greatly from supervised exercise programs, and should not be limited in engaging in beneficial activities. Some form of exercise can be found for all ages, even with health problems that may seem limiting. It’s important to let your doctor know you are motivated and interested in improving your health. Studies show that sleep apnea can lead to heart failure and stroke. Pranayamic breathing may reduce those risk factors.

Studies take time. Supplementing your diet unnecessarily with non-food sources can be costly, and potentially harmful. A change of diet can provide much toward improved health outcomes, We often forget that answers to good health are at our fingertips. We don’t yet have all the answers about sleep apnea and vitamin B1 from a research perspective, but we have many clues from past studies about the role of good nutrition and good health. Take your eating habits seriously - there is nothing to lose, and much to gain. Now go eat some green leafy vegetables, close your eyes, and visualize health and wellness.

Reduced mammillary body volume in patients with obstructive sleep apnea.
Sleep Apnea Patients Have Shrunken Brain Structures Involved in Memory