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Lou Gehrig, Head Trauma, & Sleep Apnea

Posted Aug 19 2010 7:32pm

A recent study showed that head trauma can sometimes mimic Lou Gehrg’s disease (or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – AML). This condition was named after the famous New York Yankees baseball player that develop muscle weakness, paralysis and eventually, death. The journalist displayed a vintage photo of Gehrig just after being knocked unconscious by a runaway pitch.

Knowing what we know about the effects of untreated obstructive sleep apnea, you could say that any type of brain injury, whether due to blunt head trauma, or small to large vascular events, cannot be good for memory, breathing, executive function, and motor control. But these are the same areas that are known to be affected when someone has untreated obstructive sleep apnea.

Chronic hypoxia causes inflammation and clotting in small vessels. One study showed that sleep apnea patients have much thicker blood, and that ear-brain reflexes where diminished, but improved after treatment. Hypoxic conditions in mice have been even shown to produce amyloid plaques—the same thing that’s seen in Alzheimer’s disease.

We also know that sleep apnea patients have much higher number of lacunar infarcts than people without, as well as having anywhere from 3-5 times increased risk of stroke. I would think numerous small strokes added together over years could lead to at least some degree of brain dysfunction.

It’s also safe to assume that if you have head trauma, having obstructive sleep apnea can prevent proper healing and regeneration.

Given all this, isn’t it possible that when a certain part of the brain is “injured” due to obstructive sleep apnea, depending on where it occurs, you’ll get various symptoms that correspond to where it’s happening? For example, we know that in sleep apnea patients, brain density, volume and metabolism are significantly diminished in areas that control breathing, respiration and autonomic control. What if you clotted a small vessel that feeds this area? Could it lead to central sleep apnea? What if you damage areas that produce dopamine, or hypocretin? Could this process lead to symptoms that mimic Parkinson’s or even narcolepsy? What if you had fluctuating areas of diminished blood flow that returns to normal? Could this lead to symptoms that are similar to multiple sclerosis?

I realize that much of this may be a stretch, but it never ceases to amaze me how devastating obstructive sleep apnea can be to the brain, no matter how mild it may be.

What do you think about my theory? Is it plausible, or too far fetched of an idea? I’d like to hear your opinions about this.

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