An antidepressant called mirtazapine may help people with a potentially life-threatening sleep disorder, sleep apnea, and may also help heavy snorers.
With sleep apnea, airflow from the nose and mouth to the lungs is restricted during sleep, causing the person to stop breathing for up to one minute, sometimes hundreds of times a night.
Sleep apnea affects an estimated 15 million to 20 million people in the United States and is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and adult-onset diabetes.
Additionally, apnea, which means "without breath," can lead to behavioral problems and learning difficulties because people do not get enough rest.
Currently, sleep apnea is treated with mechanical devices such as masks or nasal prongs, which maintain a continuous positive airway pressure. However, the devices can be uncomfortable and difficult to use long-term.
But now researchers have found that mirtazapine, an antidepressant, can significantly reduce the symptoms of sleep apnea and may also help heavy snorers.
The study involved 12 people between the ages of 20 and 70 years and was funded by NV Organon, which markets the drug as Remeron for a treatment for depression.
During three seven-day treatment periods, participants were given either mirtazapine or a dummy pill one hour before bedtime.
The participants were then monitored throughout the night.
Researchers found that using the drug cut the number of times breathing stopped or slowed during sleep in half and reduced the number of times sleep was disrupted by 28 percent.
According to researchers, since the drug helped sleep apnea, it could also help snoring. However, they questioned whether snorers would want to take the drug.
The U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration has not approved Mirtazapine for the treatment of sleep apnea. Its use in this trial was approved for experimental purposes only.
BBC News June 4, 2003