Can Sleep Apnea Cause Brain Damage?

We’ve shared the dire consequences – from glaucoma to tinnitus to heart disease – that can result from too little sleep. But this one has even us a little shocked.

In a recent study out of a university in Italy, researchers studied four groups of mice. The first group was allowed to sleep as long as it wanted with no interruptions. The second group was woken up periodically, while group three was forced to stay awake for an extra eight hours. The fourth group got it bad: in an effort to mimic chronic sleep deprivation, they were deprived of sleep for five straight days.

The damage done, the researchers then studied two types of cells that play key roles in overall neurological housekeeping: astrocytes (which prune old synapses in the brain to rewire it for ongoing use) and microglial cells (think of them as the brain’s garbagemen, clearing the brain of damaged cells and debris).

What researchers discovered was revealing and even a bit disturbing. Astrocytes were active in 6% of the synapses of the well-rested mice, versus nearly 14% of those in the sleep-deprived mice. And microglial cells were active only in the brains of the sleep-deprived mice. Meaning that the sleep-deprived mice had waste in their brains that needed to be cleared out.

To put it another way: the sleep-deprived mice experienced more damage to the brain synapses than the well-rested mice. And the sleep-deprived mice had brain cell damage that the well-rested mice didn’t experience at all.

What does this mean? Chronic sleep deprivation can cause the brain to have to rewire itself more aggressively to continue to function, and can cause it to break down in ways that it doesn’t if you’re getting sufficient rest. In simple terms: if you’re suffering from something like chronic sleep apnea, your brain could be eating itself.

If you think you’re suffering from chronic OSA, please contact us for an at-home sleep study.


If You Don’t Get Enough Sleep, Your Brain Literally Eats Itself (
The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation (New Scientist)

Published On: January 30, 2023 Categories: Sleep Apnea, Wellness