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Sleep apnea treatment hailed by OSU researchers

An x-ray shows an implanted nerve stimulator in use. Credit: Courtesy of Ohio State

An x-ray shows an implanted nerve stimulator in use. Credit: Courtesy of Ohio State

An implanted nerve stimulator is a safe treatment for a serious respiratory disease, a study conducted with the help of Ohio State researchers has found.

Implanted nerve stimulators, which are pacemaker-like devices, were developed to treat central sleep apnea, or CSA. Unlike obstructive sleep apnea, which is more common and results in pauses in breathing from a collapsing airway, CSA happens when the brain fails to control breathing during sleep.

Rami Khayat, a doctor who participated in the research and co-director of the OSU Sleep-Heart Program, said having CSA can be a matter of life or death.

“Heart failure patients who have central sleep apnea are more likely to die than the ones who don’t,” Khayat said.

William Abraham, co-lead author of the study and director of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Wexner Medical Center, said CSA not only causes symptoms but also affects life quality.  

“(Patients) are sleepy, they fall asleep during the day, they are fatigued and they don’t have energy,” Abraham said.  

Current treatment for CSA uses positive airway pressure breathing. This is a method that has patients wear a tight-fitting mask that blows air into their lungs.

However, research has shown that this treatment can create discomfort and harm.

In healthy breathing, air is pulled into the chest. Instead of pulling, the mask pushes air into the lungs, which damages heart function.  

“(The mask) impairs the ability of blood flow to come back to the heart,” Abraham said.

Unlike the mask, the implanted nerve stimulator works to enhance brain function and achieve normal physiological breathing.

The stimulator is implanted in the vein adjacent to the nerve that controls breathing. When the brain fails to signal the diaphragm, the device impulses the nerve to help breathing.

“The stimulator stimulates the nerve and makes the diaphragm breathe, and it takes over the responsibility,” said Ralph Augostini, a cardiologist at the Wexner Center who participated in the research.

The device is currently under testing by the Food and Drug Administration.

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