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Sleep Disorders
Volume 2012, Article ID 251096, 18 pages
Review Article

Pathogenesis of Cognitive Dysfunction in Patients with Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A Hypothesis with Emphasis on the Nucleus Tractus Solitarius

Sleep Disorders Group, EEE Department, MSE, The University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC 3010, Australia

Received 28 October 2011; Revised 13 December 2011; Accepted 22 December 2011

Academic Editor: Manos Alchanatis

Copyright © 2012 Mak Adam Daulatzai. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


OSA is characterized by the quintessential triad of intermittent apnea, hypoxia, and hypoxemia due to pharyngeal collapse. This paper highlights the upstream mechanisms that may trigger cognitive decline in OSA. Three interrelated steps underpin cognitive dysfunction in OSA patients. First, several risk factors upregulate peripheral inflammation; these crucial factors promote neuroinflammation, cerebrovascular endothelial dysfunction, and oxidative stress in OSA. Secondly, the neuroinflammation exerts negative impact globally on the CNS, and thirdly, important foci in the neocortex and brainstem are rendered inflamed and dysfunctional. A strong link is known to exist between neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration. A unique perspective delineated here underscores the importance of dysfunctional brainstem nuclei in etiopathogenesis of cognitive decline in OSA patients. Nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS) is the central integration hub for afferents from upper airway (somatosensory/gustatory), respiratory, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular (baroreceptor and chemoreceptor) and other systems. The NTS has an essential role in sympathetic and parasympathetic systems also; it projects to most key brain regions and modulates numerous physiological functions. Inflamed and dysfunctional NTS and other key brainstem nuclei may play a pivotal role in triggering memory and cognitive dysfunction in OSA. Attenuation of upstream factors and amelioration of the NTS dysfunction remain important challenges.