Scientists have gained fresh insights into the signals that regulate breathing during when oxygen levels are low, which could have implications for patients with central sleep apnea or could help people adapt to sleeping at higher altitudes.

Central sleep apnea occurs when there is a breakdown in the signals that instruct the body to breathe.

Researchers led by the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Integrative Physiology used genetically-modified mice to show that an enzyme called AMPK helps us to breathe faster when oxygen levels are low. The mice in this study do not produce AMPK in the specialized cells that send signals to support breathing when oxygen availability falls.

The team found that the animals showed similar symptoms to people with central sleep apnea—failing to breathe faster in response to low oxygen environments. The animals are otherwise healthy and show no breathing difficulties under normal conditions.

Mark Evans, of the University’s Centre for Integrative Physiology, says in a release: “Our findings identify exciting new avenues for the treatment of sleep-disordered breathing, because drugs that mimic AMPK activation could restore normal breathing patterns in people suffering from this disease. Mice with AMPK deficiencies could also prove useful for helping us to identify such therapies.”

The study is published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.