Research seeks to disrupt the perfect storm that increases risk of Alzheimer’s

October 10, 2014

The combination of testosterone, sleep apnea and oxidative stress may work together to promote brain inflammation and put men at a greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

That’s the hypothesis that Rebecca Cunningham, PhD, hopes to prove with the help of a $100,000 New Investigator Research Grant from the Alzheimer’s Association.

"Alone, sleep apnea may influence the risk for cognitive impairment," said Dr. Cunningham, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Neuroscience at UNT Health Science Center. "But when you add testosterone, it’s like creating the perfect storm."

It is believed that sleep apnea promotes damage to brain cells because of the production of toxic oxygen molecules called free radicals. Oxidative stress occurs when more free radicals are produced in the body than antioxidants.

Men may be especially vulnerable to the effects of oxidative stress because they are more than three time as likely as women to develop sleep apnea, a potentially serious disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts.

If the results of her research are proven, Dr. Cunningham said that treating sleep apnea in men would be the simplest way to lower their risk for cognitive impairment. Treatment often involves wearing a breathing device while sleeping.

"The trouble is people with sleep apnea often don’t know they have it," Dr. Cunningham said. "Usually it’s only when a spouse reports the person snoring that they get tested for it."

Dr. Cunningham hopes her research will lead to heightened awareness of the possible risks men face so that testing for sleep apnea can occur earlier and more frequently.

The grant will allow her to further investigate the role of testosterone, sleep apnea and oxidative stress on men, said Dr. Cunningham, adding she is very appreciative of the Alzheimer’s Association.

The study is right in line with fulfilling the mission of the Alzheimer’s Association, said Theresa Hocker, President and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association – North Central Texas Chapter.

"We are so truly thrilled to have researches of this caliber receive this national honor," she said.

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