Sedatives May Help Snorers Give Masks the Slip

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Sleeping pills and anti-snore drugs could soon spare thousands of Australians from the prospect of donning cumbersome masks at bedtime, top sleep researchers say.

Scientists at Sydney's Woolcock Institute of Medical Research are investigating new ways to help Australians who suffer from the common snoring condition obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).

Most patients are recommended CPAP or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, the gold standard treatment found to best alleviate the shallow breathing, loud snoring and daytime fatigue associated with OSA.

"While effective, CPAP requires people to wear a bulky, burdensome mask all night, every night," says Ron Grunstein, a professor of sleep medicine at the Woolcock.

"That's an understandably unattractive prospect that turns many patients off the treatment altogether," he says. "It's vital we find alternatives, test them out and find out which options are best for particular patients to get the very best results."

One in ten middle-aged Australians have the sleep disorder, which disrupts breathing and interferes with sound sleep.

"A large proportion of these people spend the night waking dozens of times as their breathing gets very shallow or even stops," Professor Grunstein explains.

"As a consequence, they wake feeling tired and groggy, a problem we're keen to see if we can help solve with minimum of medical intervention."

Researchers are recruiting Sydney volunteers with OSA to test out a range of alternative treatments to find which patients respond best to different therapies.

Among those to be tested is zopiclone, a sedative which, when taken nightly, is thought to improve the severity of OSA and may reduce daytime sleepiness associated with it in certain people with OSA.

They'll also investigate drugs which may stimulate the airway muscles to stay open during sleep and other less invasive treatments, like body positioning and low flow oxygen therapy.

"We're focused on finding ways of predicting which patients will benefit from each of these therapies," Professor Grunstein says.

"It won't be long and we'll have an evidence-based toolkit that clinicians can use to guide their patients to the treatment that will work best for that specific person."

The team is looking to recruit OSA patients who are not currently on CPAP.

Volunteers will trial various therapies, including placebo treatment, with follow up tests of mood, productivity and simulated driving ability to check the treatment benefits. Recruits may need to spend a night in the sleep lab at the beginning and end of the study so polysomnography tests can measure OSA severity.

Those involved in the zopiclone study (ZOPOSA), which is being conducted in collaboration with Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA), will take the sleeping tablet or a sugar pill nightly for one month.

Professor Grunstein says the sedative will help people get better sleep quality, “We know from single night studies that zopiclone can reduce sleep apnea in certain subgroups of patients and we will now extend this research for longer periods in carefully selected individuals”

"If it works we'll have a new and exciting alternative treatment that could improve the quality of life for so many Australians," the professor says.

"I think it is really important that we are active in this research area given how vital it will be in future to offer individualised OSA care."

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About the Woolcock

The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research is one of the world's leading respiratory and sleep research organisations. It has over 200 medical researchers working to uncover the causes of disease, finding better treatments and translating these into practice.

OSA in Australia 

  • Obstructive sleep apnoea is the complete or partial blockage of the upper airway during sleep, causing disrupted breathing.
  • It affects at least five per cent of Australians, with rates highest among the elderly and obese.
  • The condition costs the health system about $400 million a year, with an extra $2.6 billion annually in indirect costs arising from lost productivity, workplace accidents and car crashes.
  • Sufferers have higher than average rates of stroke, heart disease and depression.
  • OSA has been linked with excessive and inappropriate sleepiness, impaired cognition, increased risk of motor vehicle crashes and at least double the rate of workplace accidents.