Sleep is controlled by the brain and is essential for human life. Impaired sleep can adversely affect every organ in the body. Obstructive sleep apnoea is a common breathing disorder characterised by narrowing and closure of the upper airway during sleep, leading to reduced oxygen levels and disrupted sleep. Untreated sleep apnoea is associated with major co-morbidities, including neurocognitive impairment and increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
In addition to more broad sleep physiology interests, the key focus of our sleep research program at NeuRA is to investigate the multiple pathogenic causes of sleep apnoea and to develop and test novel, targeted therapeutic approaches for individual patients. We run a comprehensive basic sciences and translational research program in our world class sleep research facilities here at NeuRA. We utilise a variety of neurophysiological techniques to study human upper airway muscle function and airway mechanics during wakefulness and sleep and other key mechanisms contributing to sleep apnoea. We also conduct clinical trials to test the utility of new targeted treatments for patients with sleep apnoea.
Click here to access Dr Danny Eckert's research papers:
Approximately 5% of adults report using sleeping pills to promote sleep with higher rates in the elderly. We are conducting several NHMRC-funded studies in healthy individuals and patients with sleep apnoea to examine the effects of common sleeping pills on the upper airway muscles and breathing during sleep.
The use of opioid medications in our community is quite common and can cause serious breathing problems, particularly during sleep. The goal of this NHMRC-funded project is to investigate the effects of opioids on upper airway muscle activity, respiratory control, and breathing during sleep in patients with obstructive sleep apnoea. These studies will help us to understand reasons why breathing responses to opioids vary between individuals and which sleep apnoea patients are most at risk of developing breathing complications during sleep.
There are important protective reflexes in the human upper airway that help keep the airway open when suction pressures (as occurs in sleep apnoea) are present. We are conducting research to understand how these important reflexes in the upper airway including the tongue and surrounding muscles function to gain insight into the causes of obstructive sleep apnoea.
While continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is highly effective in treating sleep apnoea (See: What is obstructive sleep apnoea?), approximately 50% of patients are intolerant or non-adherent. Responses to alternative therapies are variable and are currently difficult to predict. We are undertaking research using a variety of novel physiological approaches to understand the key causes of sleep apnoea on a per patient basis. Using this approach our goals are to develop simple accurate tools to identify the varying causes of sleep apnoea, develop targeted novel therapies for individual patients, and to determine who is most likely to respond to existing non-CPAP therapies.
The prevalence of sleep apnoea in people with chronic quadriplegia is two to seven times higher than the general population. The causes likely differ compared to the able-bodied population. Thus, optimal treatment approaches may also differ. We are conducting an NHMRC-funded project to identify the causes of sleep apnoea in people with spinal cord injury and are running a clinical trial to test the effectiveness of a novel therapeutic intervention for people with spinal cord injury and sleep apnoea.
Associate Professor Danny Eckert has been actively involved in human sleep and respiratory physiology research since 2001. In 2006, he completed his PhD at the University of Adelaide, based at the Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health, investigating the effects of low oxygen levels on protective respiratory reflexes and sensory processing in humans during wakefulness and sleep. He was subsequently awarded the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand Allen and Hanburys Respiratory Research Fellowship, followed by an NHMRC CJ Martin Fellowship to pursue postdoctoral studies.
After three years of postdoctoral training at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, he was promoted to Faculty; first to Instructor in Medicine in 2009, and subsequently to Assistant Professor. After a highly productive five and a half years in the United States, in late 2011 Associate Professor Eckert returned to Australia to establish a sleep and respiratory physiology research program at NeuRA to continue his research investigating the causes of sleep apnoea and developing new treatments. He currently serves on the board of the Australasian Sleep Association and is Chair of the Research Committee.