During a 2011 debate, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry failed to remember one of the government departments he would eliminate if elected president, the epitaph he chose for his drawn-out mental lapse was "Oops." Turns out, that syllable may have signaled a brain struggling under the effects of sleep apnea, which scientists say could cause daytime fatigue and even long-term cognitive damage.
According to "Oops," Texas Tribune correspondent Jay Root's new diary of his time covering the Perry campaign, the famous error came after weeks of poor sleep caused by an undiagnosed case of sleep apnea.
Referring to another debate malfunction in Orlando, Fla., in which Perry made a nearly unintelligible attack on Mitt Romney for being duplicitous, Root wrote:
"Perry had kept in touch with his medical team, and by early October, days after the Florida fiasco, the campaign had urgently consulted sleep specialists, bringing them in to investigate. "After conducting overnight tests on Perry, they produced a rather startling diagnosis: He had sleep apnea, and it had gone undetected for years, probably decades."
Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form of the sleep disorder, occurs when the throat muscles relax during sleep and intermittently block a sufferer's airway, according to the National Institutes of Health. This condition, often signaled by loud, fitful snoring, can interrupt a sleeper's oxygen supply for periods ranging from seconds to minutes.
By repeatedly rousing a sufferer into lighter states of sleep in order to restart breathing, sleep apnea often causes poor sleep and chronic daytime fatigue, but it may also result in long-lasting cognitive impairment, research has suggested. [Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment]
According to a 2008 study from the University of California, Los Angeles, sleep apnea is associated with tissue loss in brain regions that store memory.
The study, detailed in the journal Neuroscience Letters, scanned the brains of 43 sleep-apnea sufferers and determined that the mammillary bodies, a pair of brain structures known to play a role in memory, were nearly 20 percent smaller in sleep-apnea sufferers than in a control group.
"Our findings demonstrate that impaired breathing during sleep can lead to a serious brain injury that disrupts memory and thinking," principal investigator Ronald Harper, a professor of neurobiology at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, told The New York Times.
So science suggests that some of Perry's blunders may have been exacerbated by sleep apnea, and though the governor can't take back his debate performances, there are still plenty of reasons for him and other sleep-apnea sufferers to seek treatment, which is available. The disorder has also been linked to strokes and Alzheimer's disease.
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