People with severe sleep apnea undergo significant reduction in white matter fiber integrity in several brain locations. A new study suggests that sleep apnea treatment can reverse this brain damage.

According to researchers at the Sleep Disorders Center of San Raffaele Hospital and Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milano, Italy and colleagues, continuous positive airway pressure therapy can undo some of the damage caused by chronic snoring.

People suffering from obstructive sleep apnea have disturbed sleep due to frequent pauses in breathing pattern. The research has shown that the condition can up heart disease and stroke risk. Related studies have even shown that people with sleep apnea have high chances of developing diabetes.

The researchers involved with the current study say that frequent awakenings due to breathing problems can lead to cognitive problems and memory. But, common treatment for the condition for around 12 months can help restore some of the functions.

CPAP is a treatment that uses mild air pressure to keep airways open. The therapy is used in people who suffer from breathing problems.

"Structural neural injury of the brain of obstructive sleep apnea patients is reversible with effective treatment," said lead author Vincenza Castronovo, PhD, clinical psychologist at the Sleep Disorders Center at San Raffaele Hospital and Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milano, Italy. "Treatment with CPAP, if patients are adherent to therapy, is effective for normalizing the brain structure."

The present study involved 17 men with severe, untreated obstructive sleep apnea. Participants were about 43 years of age at the start of the study. Researchers looked at the severity of their conditions at the beginning and at three months and 12 months of treatment with CPAP therapy. The control group included 15 healthy participants.

Castronovo's research team had previously conducted a separate study that found that even three months of CPAP therapy can reverse some amount of brain damage in people with sleep apnea.

"We know that PAP therapy keeps people breathing at night; but demonstrating effects on secondary outcomes is critical, and brain function and structure are strong secondary outcomes,"  said Mark Aloia, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, and Senior Director of Global Clinical Research for Philips Respironics, Inc. co author of the study.

The study is published in the journal Sleep.