Researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) are reporting that snoring linked with sleep apnoea may impair brain function to a greater extent than previously thought.
The research has shown that obstructive sleep apnoea sufferers experience similar changes in brain biochemistry to people who have had a severe stroke or who are dying.
And the new study is the first to analyse-"in a second-by-second timeframe"-what is happening in the brains of sufferers as they sleep.
Previous studies have focused on recreating oxygen impairment in awake patients.
"It used to be thought that apnoeic snoring had absolutely no acute effects on brain function but this is plainly not true," said New South Global Professor Caroline Rae, the lead author of the study.
Severe form of Sleep apnoea is characterised by extended pauses in breathing, repetitive asphyxia, and sleep fragmentation.
Children with enlarged tonsils and adenoids are also affected, raising concerns of long-term cognitive damage.
The researchers used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study the brains of 13 men with severe, untreated, obstructive sleep apnoea.
They found that even a moderate degree of oxygen desaturation during the patients' sleep had significant effects on the brain's bioenergetic status.
"The findings show that lack of oxygen while asleep may be far more detrimental than when awake, possibly because the normal compensatory mechanisms don't work as well when you are asleep," said Rae.
She added: "This is happening in someone with sleep apnoea acutely and continually when they are asleep. It's a completely different biochemical mechanism from anything we've seen before and is similar to what you see in somebody who has had a very severe stroke or is dying."
In her opinion, the findings suggested societal perceptions of snoring needed to change.
She said: "People look at people snoring and think it's funny. That has to stop."
Rae said that they don't known why the body responded to oxygen depletion in this way.
"The brain could be basically resetting its bioenergetics to make itself more resistant to lack of oxygen. It may be a compensatory mechanism to keep you alive, we just don't know, but even if it is it's not likely to be doing you much good," said Rae.
The study has been published in the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism.