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OHSU physician-scientist pioneers research to better understand maternal sleep apnea

Original Article By: Nicole Rideout

Summarized By: Neurobit

Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) have initiated a study on maternal sleep apnea, a condition where an individual's breathing stops and restarts during sleep, resulting in insufficient oxygen supply to the body. Pregnant women are at a higher risk of sleep apnea, but the adverse effects of this condition on fetal and infant brain development are yet to be fully understood. To address this gap, OHSU has received a nearly $700,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of maternal sleep apnea on fetal brain development.

The lead researcher of the study is Stephen A. Back, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of Pediatrics at OHSU School of Medicine. Back highlighted that the lack of oxygen caused by maternal sleep apnea can disrupt fetal brain development and lead to serious cognitive delays and learning disabilities in babies. Maternal sleep apnea peaks during the third trimester of pregnancy, a critical period of brain growth and maturation for the fetus, and it is believed that it could also affect a child's motor function, learning and memory, attention, and overall cognition postnatally.

The research, which will be conducted over a period of four years, will focus on the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques, the researchers will investigate how maternal sleep apnea affects fetal neurological development and interpret the abnormalities in the brain that arise from maternal sleep apnea during pregnancy. The findings from this study may prompt new clinical studies to reduce the adverse effects of maternal sleep apnea on fetal brain development and improve childhood learning and memory.

According to Back, many pregnant women experience sleep apnea but do not receive timely treatment, potentially leading to lifelong developmental impairments in their children. The aim of this research is to provide a better understanding of maternal sleep apnea, its potential health impacts, and offer effective clinical care and treatment for expectant mothers, ultimately improving the health and well-being of children.


Rideout, N. (2023, February 2). OHSU physician-scientist pioneers research to better understand maternal sleep apnea. OHSU News. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from

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