The Molecular Biology of Sleep Apnea essay

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Sleep to humans is what the sun is to solar cells. A good eight hour sleep can leave us refreshed and ready to take on a new day. I used to take ‘sleep’ and being able to sleep effortlessly for granted until I came across the problem my husband was suffering. He has “sleep apnea” – a condition that wakes him up several times in the night – gasping for air. He never gets sufficient sleep and that leaves him excessively sleepy throughout the following day, reducing his energy levels as well. Since he needs to drive to work and back the condition also presents the threat of work related or driving accidents.

Initially we did try several self-help treatments like sewing a tennis ball to the back of his pyjama top so that he does not roll onto his back while asleep and using a nasal dilator, but after a point of time we started looking for alternatives or a permanent solution that did not require accessories for him to sleep through the night. After consulting a doctor he began using a CPAP machine to improve his breathing and consequently sleep during the nights. It forces his airway to remain open by forcing air through the mask. While it does play an important role in easing his breathing the mask sometimes gets very uncomfortable to wear. We have been trying to find more information on sleep apnea and if there is an alternative to him wearing the mask.  The article “Molecular biology of sleep apnea could lead to new treatments” on biologynew.net drew our attention to it because it presented a new approach to the treatment of the condition.

In patients with sleep apnea the oxygen level of cells decreases and consequently leads the brain to send a message causing the patient to wake up, gasping for air. When this happens throughout the night it affects sleep and to a certain extent results in peripheral neural injury.

After experimenting on an animal model of sleep apnea, it was found that the endoplasmic reticula and poorly folded proteins accumulated in muscle nerve cells play an important role in controlling sleep apnea. Under certain conditions a protein called PERK is a deciding factor in whether the cells involved fix themselves or destroy themselves. When the cells of the patient are healthy, they are able to fix themselves when prompted by the protein (PERK). When this happens another molecule called eIF-2alpha which turns on anti-oxidants (and other helpful molecules) that degrade mis-folded proteins and hence the problem of sleep apnea. However if the cells are not able to fix themselves they take the self-destructive path and worsen the condition. In the event of cells destroying themselves, there could be a loss of a few motor neurons.

Researchers are working on trying to keep the ‘eIF-2alpha path’ active, so that cells do not take the self-destruct path. They are trying to determine if the eIF-2alpha path can be kept active with certain changes to the diets of patients. This is of great concern to me and my husband and we are closely following any reports or findings regarding the same. It would mean a lot to us if he can do away with the mask by just adopting a few changes to our diet.

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