Though it has been known for some time now that children who are suffering from sleep apnea often produce low scores on IQ tests (normally scoring an average of 85 against a score of 101 for children without sleep apnea) what we have not known until very recently is that this results from chemical changes in the brain. This means that a normally 'smart' child might well produce a run of the mill performance because of a sleep disorder which can be fairly simply treated in most instances.
In a recent study conducted at the Hopkin's Children's Centre in Baltimore 31 children between the ages of 6 and 16 (19 of whom suffered from severe sleep apnea) were examined with a special form or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and found that the children suffering from sleep apnea displayed important alterations in both the hippocampus and right frontal cortex - two sections of the brain that are linked with learning and higher mental function. The same study also found that these children had unusual levels of three chemicals in the brain which is a sign of brain damage.
This alteration of the chemistry of the brain stemming from sleep apnea could or could not be permanent and further studies will be required to see whether this affect is reversible. However, even if reversal is possible and the cognitive function and chemistry of the brain can be returned to normal, children who are suffering from sleep apnea will show a loss in learning as long as they suffer from sleep apnea which is left untreated and they will be unable to wind back the clock and recover this learning period.
Of course parents should already be watching for signs of sleep apnea in their children but this study shows that an early treatment of this sleep disorder could have a very large affect on a child's future.
The indications of sleep apnea might include recurrent pauses in breathing while sleeping which often produce an arousal from sleep as well as both tossing and turning. Children might also show labored and loud breathing, coughing, snoring, gasping and, sometimes, bedwetting at an age when this phase should normally have passed. Parents could also notice a child sleeping in a strange position, perhaps with their bottom sticking up in the air and their head tilted backwards in an unwitting effort to force their airway open.
In most instances sleep apnea in children can be treated by the surgical removal of both the tonsils and adenoids or of excess tissue from the back of the throat or from the nose. Additionally, a CPAP (continuous positive airways pressure) machine could also be recommended to provide a child with a flow of air which is delivered through a mask worn while sleeping to keep the airway open.
Sleep apnea is in itself detrimental to any child and the affects of a lengthy period of restless sleep will take its toll on your child. However, when you combine this with a reduction in a child's IQ, it is imperative that you act at the earliest possible opportunity to see that this problem is diagnosed and then treated.