Decreased noradrenergic excitation of hypoglossal motoneurons during sleep causing hypotonia of pharyngeal dilator muscles is a major contributor to the pathogenesis of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a widespread disease for which treatment options are limited. Previous OSA drug candidates targeting various excitatory/inhibitory receptors on hypoglossal motoneurons have proved unviable in reactivating these neurons, particularly during rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. To identify a viable drug target, we show that the repurposed α2-adrenergic antagonist yohimbine potently reversed the depressant effect of REM sleep on baseline hypoglossal motoneuron activity (a first-line motor defense against OSA) in rats. Remarkably, yohimbine also restored the obstructive apnea–induced long-term facilitation of hypoglossal motoneuron activity (hLTF), a much-neglected form of noradrenergic-dependent neuroplasticity that could provide a second-line motor defense against OSA but was also depressed during REM sleep. Corroborating immunohistologic, optogenetic, and pharmacologic evidence confirmed that yohimbine’s beneficial effects on baseline hypoglossal motoneuron activity and hLTF were mediated mainly through activation of pontine A7 and A5 noradrenergic neurons. Our results suggest a 2-tier (impaired first- and second-line motor defense) mechanism of noradrenergic-dependent pathogenesis of OSA and a promising pharmacotherapy for rescuing both these intrinsic defenses against OSA through disinhibition of A7 and A5 neurons by α2-adrenergic blockade.


Gang Song, Chi-Sang Poon


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