Inadequate oxygen levels during sleep can damage the brain and increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, University of Queensland (UQ) researchers have found.

Scientists from UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute and School of Biomedical Sciences are now initiating a clinical study of patients with sleep apnea to determine whether treatment lowers the risk of developing dementia.

Elizabeth Coulson, PhD, says people who suffered from sleep apnea that resulted in hypoxia—lower levels of oxygen in the blood—were up to 3 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers have been investigating the mechanisms by which this occurs, finding that hypoxia leads to the degeneration of an area of the brain important for attention and learning.

“The next stage of our research involves following patients with sleep apnoea over an extended period of time to determine whether CPAP [continuous positive airway pressure] protects against cognitive decline,” Coulson says in a release.

Her team will study patients aged 55 to 75 to determine if CPAP therapy can stop or slow brain degeneration and reduce subsequent dementia risk.

Queensland Brain Institute director Pankaj Sah said the research could lead to initiating early intervention in patients with sleep apnea.

“Sleep disturbances can occur up to 10 years prior to Alzheimer’s disease,” Sah says. “Considering that Alzheimer’s affects roughly one-third of the elderly population, this important research may inform preventative public health measures in the future.”