A new treatment for sleep apnea could be created using antidepressants

Medicine used to treat depression shows a reduction in sleep apnea severity.
Brittney Grimes
CPAP mask and hose.
CPAP mask and hose.


Sleep apnea is a condition that affects almost a billion people worldwide.

Treatments for sleep apnea

Although there is still no cure, a drug used to treat something entirely different could possibly reduce obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) severity. A study from Flinders University has shown a drug that was used to treat depression could provide answers to a possible future treatment.

The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

Sleep apnea, a sleep disorder where a person can’t breathe during sleep, is a serious issue and often causes loud snoring and other problems. Current sleep apnea therapies are often hard to tolerate. Such therapies include continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines.

A CPAP machine delivers air pressure to a mask to keep the upper airway passages open, preventing snoring and sleep apnea.

"Obstructive sleep apnea can be a debilitating disease, causing poor quality sleep at night and sleepiness during the day," says study lead author Dr. Thomas Altree from FHRMI: Sleep Health (formerly the Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health).

Many are affected by this disease

He notes that this disease affects millions in Australia, where the study took place, and can cause major issues with health and productivity. An estimated 2.5 million Australians suffer from sleep apnea. According to Science Daily, OSA affects 22 million Americans and it’s linked to higher rates of heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, hypertension and other chronic conditions.

Despite the sleep apnea therapies and treatments that are available now, this study shows the possibility of another unexpected treatment option for OSA.

Possibility of a new effective treatment

“Recent research found a combination of the medicines reboxetine and oxybutynin, which were both previously used for unrelated conditions, could be an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea,” Altree said, “but can cause side effects.”

The results of this study showed that the medicine reboxetine alone can reduce sleep apnea severity. Reboxetine is a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (NRI) drug that is known for treating major depression. Oxybutynin is a medication used to treat overactive bladder. However, the researchers wanted to find out if the antidepressant alone could treat sleep apnea.

"We wanted to see if reboxetine on its own could be effective and assess exactly how it changes breathing during sleep."

The research and study

The research team ran a “double blind, placebo controlled, randomized, multicenter 3-way cross-over trial with collaborators” at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney. The crossover study allowed patients to receive multiple treatments during the trial with limited variability.

There were 16 people with obstructive sleep apnea who participated in the study. They tested single doses of reboxetine compared to a combination of reboxetine and oxybutynin or placebo.


“Our results showed that reboxetine on its own can reduce sleep apnea severity,” Altree stated. “We found the drug reduced the number of sleep apnea events per hour and also improved oxygen levels, while the addition of oxybutynin didn't cause additional improvements,” he said.

He described the method used to determine the stabilization of sleep during the research. “We also used a state-of-the-art computing method to determine how the drug stabilizes breathing during sleep, which allows us to identify which patients might benefit most from the drug in the future.”

The study shows the “first evidence that reboxetine alone reduces OSA severity.” The results of this research suggest that a drug meant to alleviate and treat one disorder, major depressive disorder, could be beneficial in treating another completely different and unrelated disorder, a sleep disorder.

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