Memories Study Examines Link between Sleep Apnea and Alzheimer’s

Posted: November 12, 2012 at 3:58 pm, Last Updated: February 18, 2013 at 10:39 am

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By Michele McDonald

University Professor Kathy Richards.

When only five people out of 150 potential participants signed up for her study, renowned sleep researcher Kathy Richards knew she had to make some changes.

Richards is studying the link between sleep apnea treatment and Alzheimer’s disease, the first trial of its kind.

But qualified participants shied away after learning they had 50-50 chance of receiving a placebo — common practice in clinical trials — to treat their sleep apnea, a condition that causes them to stop breathing for brief periods while they snooze. Many didn’t even know they had sleep apnea, and once they found out, they wanted immediate treatment.

“I don’t want to be in the study and take even a little risk that if I treated it faster, I might preserve my memory,” they told Richards, University Professor and an assistant dean for the PhD program in Mason’s School of Nursing. She listened and changed the study this fall to make sure all those who have sleep apnea receive treatment, not a placebo.

Funded by $1.9 million from the National Institute on Aging, the newly revamped memories study is kicking off now.

It’s not unusual to tweak a pilot study, says Arlene Johnson, a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Nursing who’s working on the study. “We’re dealing with humans, so some parts of the study we had to adapt,” she says.

Richards also began working with physician Barry Dicicco at the Northern Virginia Sleep Diagnostic Center this fall in addition to the University of Pennsylvania, Abington Memorial Hospital in Pennsylvania.

A Compromise — with Benefits

“It’s not quite as strong of a design,” Richards says. “But if I only have 15 people in the study after three years, we’re not going to know very much. It’s better now because we’ll be able to have more people in the study and be able to see differences in improvement. It’s a compromise.”

But it’s a compromise that stands to benefit people with memory loss. Since Richards developed the project more than a year ago, there’s more evidence to support the link between interrupted breathing and memory loss. The study also could encourage physicians to screen for sleep apnea when patients are becoming forgetful.

There is evidence of a connection between interrupted breathing and memory loss. Photo by Constantin Jurcut

“Our hunch is those people who have sleep apnea will have a more rapid decline into cognitive dysfunction,” says Johnson, a former night-shift nurse supervisor who’s also researching the effects of sleep deprivation on nurses.

For most people, sleep apnea is hidden from them, unless someone hears it, Dicicco says. They gasp, snore and choke in their sleep, as many as 30 times an hour. “They’re sleep-deprived, but they’re not always aware of the cause,” he says.

Patients with severe sleep apnea double their risk of stroke and triple their risk of heart disease. Add memory loss to the list, and people are eager to treat it, Dicicco adds.

“If we can just slow down the transition from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s by just a year or two…it would be a tremendous benefit to society,” Dicicco says.

Participants will receive brain-imaging as well as nurse-coordinated care to help them adjust to the mask they will wear during sleep. “They’re receiving a benefit, and the risk is down to nothing now,” Richards says.

A Learning Opportunity for Students

And the study’s rejiggering created a prime learning opportunity for Mason students. Mason researchers tap graduate and doctoral students to help on clinical trials. Along the way, students learn the ins and outs of conducting research trials.

“As a student, what I am really getting out of it is how to put together a good research study,” says doctoral student Carla Spinelli. The experience inspires her to do more research, especially in the area of geriatrics.

The memories study promises to provide lots of data for researchers to sift through, says Logan Glantz, a master’s student in the Human Factors and Applied Cognition Program who is part of the study’s team. He’s examining the neurological images as well as giving cognitive tests.

It’s also a more personal approach to research.

“These are real people — you’re forging a relationship,” Glantz says. “It’s a different perspective on research. You talk to them over time. You don’t just see them once.”

Richards adds, “The most exciting thing is we get to talk with some incredible older adults who want to improve their memory and want to be fit and live longer. It’s fun to interact with them. That’s been very enjoyable, really getting to know them.”

Write to Michele McDonald at

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