Regulating blood pressure for a good night’s sleep

High blood pressure and sleep problems. The connection between the two keeps Ann Schreihofer, PhD, Associate Professor of Integrative Physiology, awake at night.

"People with sleep apnea have a greater risk for developing high blood pressure," Schreihofer said. "Blood pressure increases if the subjects live under conditions that mimic sleep apnea."

Schreihofer’s lab focuses on the ways that the brain regulates blood pressure and how high blood pressure disrupts breathing during sleep.

"The critical factor in sleep apnea that contributes to increasing blood pressure is the occurrence of intermittent episodes of low oxygen levels – hypoxia – due to periodic cessation of breathing while sleeping," she said. "Placing subjects in special chambers that induce intermittent hypoxia during sleep has been shown to lead to high blood pressure that persists even when the subjects are awake and not exposed to hypoxia.

"This is what occurs in people with obstructive sleep apnea," Schreihofer said.

Schreihofer believes that the neurons in the brain that regulate breathing also influence the neurons that regulate cardiovascular functions. Her goal is to map the ways that these neurons are connected in the brain stem and to understand how their interactions may be affected by exposure to chronic intermittent hypoxia. 

"We anticipate that these studies will provide novel insights into the ways that obstructive sleep apnea leads to high blood pressure," Schreihofer said.

She hopes that her research may assist physicians who treat patients with hypertension to customize patient treatment and medications aligned with the person’s individual medical issues, rather than on the most cost-effective blood pressure medication available.

"Hypertension develops from multiple causes.  Optimal treatments may vary depending upon the underlying origins of the disease. Personalized treatment of hypertensive people may enhance outcomes," she concluded.

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