Children with chronically disrupted sleep are likely to have defects in their brain cells that are associated with mental skills, mood and behaviour, researchers have warned.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a common sleep disturbance which affects up to five per cent of all children.
The findings showed that children between 7 and 11 years of age who had moderate or severe obstructive sleep apnea showed significant reductions of gray matter — brain cells involved in movement, memory, emotions, speech, perception, decision making and self-control.
Further, there is also a strong connection between sleep apnea and the loss of neurons or delayed neuronal growth in the developing brain.
"The images of gray matter changes are striking. There is also clear evidence of widespread neuronal damage or loss compared to the general population," said Leila Kheirandish-Gozal, Director at the University of Chicago in the US.
For this study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, the team evaluated sleep patterns of 16 children with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
Each child also went through neuro-cognitive testing and had his or her brain scanned with non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
They found reductions in the volume of gray matter in multiple regions of the brains of children with disrupted sleep.
These included the frontal cortices — which handle movement, problem solving, memory, language, judgement and impulse control — the prefrontal cortices — complex behaviours, planning, personality — parietal cortices — integrating sensory input — temporal lobe — hearing and selective listening — and the brainstem — controlling cardiovascular and respiratory functions.
This extensive reduction of gray matter in children with a treatable disorder provides one more reason for parents of children with symptoms of sleep apnea to consider early detection and therapy, the researchers noted.