Research in focus – sleep apnea research at the Woolcock Institute

The Sleep and Circadian Research Group at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Glebe is conducting exciting new research looking at the effect of a medication and weight loss in treating patients with sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a disease that affects up to one in five adults and is associated with increased risk of adverse health outcomes such as cardiovascular problems and excessive daytime sleepiness. Anyone can have sleep apnea, but it is known that you are more likely to have it if you are male, middle aged, or overweight.

The gold standard treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) which is a mask worn over the nose during sleep that blows air into the airways to keep them open. The only problem with this treatment is that roughly half of those prescribed this device are unable to use it.

One alternative is the Mandibular Advancement Splint (MAS) which is a mouthguard-like device worn during sleep. This device can help some patients, but it is not suitable for all sleep apnea sufferers. Sleep apnea sufferers should discuss different treatment options with their sleep specialist.

Because there are a lot of patients who are unable to use standard sleep apnea treatments, there are a high number of patients who are “lost” in the healthcare system as there are not many alternatives available for them.

The only thing left for a lot of these patients is diet and exercise to help lose some weight and reduce their sleep apnea. But unfortunately this takes time, and in the meantime, people with sleep apnea often still feel tired during the day and are more likely to be involved in accidents.

Research at the Woolcock Institute has previously shown that ~10% of weight loss can significantly reduce a person’s level of sleep apnea. A different study has shown that symptoms of daytime sleepiness can be reduced through treatment with a class of medications known as wakefulness-promoters.

In this current study these two ideas are being brought together – that we can treat the sleep apnea with weight loss, and in the meantime treat the symptoms of sleepiness with a wakefulness-promoting medication.

The study will assess daytime functioning through the use of a driving simulator, reaction time tests and tests of working memory. All participants on the study will receive a tailored diet and exercise program free of charge for 12 months and researchers are confident that patients will lose weight on this program.

If you might be interested in learning more about this research study and others that are ongoing at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, please call PhD candidate Julia Chapman on 9114-0449 or contact her via e-mail at