OHSU physician-scientist pioneers research to better understand maternal sleep apnea

A nearly $700,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health will support OHSU’s research to better understand the effects of maternal sleep apnea on babies. The information will help health care experts create strategies to reduce the various pregnancy-associated complications of this common condition. (Getty Images)

Oregon Health & Science University researchers have launched a study on maternal sleep apnea to better understand its neurological effects on a developing baby — leading-edge research they hope will shed light on health impacts for children, both unborn and throughout infancy and childhood.

Sleep apnea is a common condition where an individual’s breathing stops and restarts many times during sleep, which can prevent the body from getting enough oxygen. Pregnant women are known to be at particularly high risk for sleep apnea; however, the adverse effects of sleep apnea, and the potential risks of maternal sleep apnea on fetal and infant brain development are still largely unknown, despite growing recognition in the health care community.

A nearly $700,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health will support OHSU’s research to better understand these effects so health care experts can create strategies to reduce the various pregnancy-associated complications of this common condition.

Stephen A. Back, MD, Ph.D.

Stephen A. Back, MD, Ph.D. (OHSU)

“We know that the final few months of pregnancy are an especially important time for fetal brain development. The lack of oxygen caused by maternal sleep apnea may disrupt this development and also create serious cognitive delays and learning disabilities for the baby in the early years of their life,” said Stephen A. Back, MD, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics in the OHSU School of Medicine and the study’s lead researcher. “Maternal sleep apnea is common, but very unstudied, so it’s exciting that our team here at OHSU is able to create a greater understanding of this condition and its potential treatments.”

Maternal sleep apnea often peaks during a developmental window in the third trimester of pregnancy, which is a particularly critical period of brain growth and maturation for a developing baby. Additionally, OHSU researchers hypothesize that maternal sleep apnea causes disturbances that persist postnatally, or after birth, potentially impacting a child’s motor function, learning and memory, attention and overall cognition later in life.

The grant will support four years of research; Back and team launched the project in December. Their research will focus on the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory. Led by Jacob Raber, Ph.D., professor of behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine, researchers will first investigate how exactly maternal sleep apnea and the resulting lack of oxygen affects fetal neurological development. Using a preclinical animal model, Back and his team, who will be overseen by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) experts Christopher D. Kroenke, Ph.D.will then employ MRI to interpret abnormalities and disturbances in the brain arising throughout the course of pregnancies that are affected by maternal sleep apnea.

The data produced may prompt new clinical studies to mitigate pregnancy-associated complications of maternal sleep apnea on fetal brain development, which may improve childhood learning and memory in the long term. Additionally, Back hopes that this research can solidify the negative health outcomes associated with maternal sleep apnea and lead to greater understanding of the condition and an urgency among clinicians to provide treatment.

“Many people experience sleep apnea during pregnancy but so often do not receive timely treatment, leaving their developing child to potentially face lifelong developmental impairments,” Back said. “If we can better understand this condition and its potential health impacts, we can offer more effective clinical care and treatment for expecting mothers and improve the health and well-being of children.”

Funding for this research was provided by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, US Department of Health and Human Services (Award Number: 1R01HL163517-01A1).

All research involving animal subjects at OHSU must be reviewed and approved by the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). The IACUC’s priority is to ensure the health and safety of animal research subjects. The IACUC also reviews procedures to ensure the health and safety of the people who work with the animals. The IACUC conducts a rigorous review of all animal research proposals to ensure they demonstrate scientific value; justify the use of live animals and selected species; outline steps to minimize pain and distress; document appropriate training of all staff involved; and, establish, through a detailed review of published sources, the proposed study does not unnecessarily duplicate previous research. No live animal work may be conducted at OHSU without IACUC approval.

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