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You Can Thank These Girthy Hogs for the Next Generation of Sleep Apnea Treatments

Turns out, obese piglets are the perfect candidates for studying sleep apnea

I often think that Science Daily tones down their headlines more than I would had I written them, but here’s one that really just nails it: “Obese, Snoring Mini Pigs Show How Air Flows Through the Throat During Sleep Apnea.” Just say those four words and I’m yours: Obese. Snoring. Mini. Pigs. That alone has my attention, but the actual research they’re presenting here is important, too — basically, piglets with sleep apnea breath a lot like humans might. 

According to research published in Heliyon this month, scientists from the Department of Orthodontics at the University of Washington studied the sleeping and breathing patterns of five Yucatan mini pigs, three of average weight and two obese. Even the average Yucatan mini pig weighs around 100 pounds, but the obese ones are big enough to have a BMI of over 50. For reference, obesity in humans registers at a 30 to 35 BMI. “These are very fat pigs,” study author Zi-Jun Liu said in a press release

While that seems notable enough to just stop the story there, it does continue. Because obese mini pigs have naturally occurring sleep apnea, they are a prime subject for studying the phenomenon. The researchers sedated the piglets and observed their breathing under an MRI, later constructing a 3D model of their airways. They found that the obese pigs had a significantly more narrow throat, resulting in a 25 percent increase in airforce velocity through it. 

Previously, researchers speculated that this increase in air force velocity could produce a type of “turbulence” in the airway, caused by abrupt changes in the shape of the airflow. However, when they observed the piglets, they found that this wasn’t the case. 

While they didn’t end up pinning down precisely what causes sleep apnea in obese pigs and therefore in humans, their study marks a big step forward in the process. Hooking up a 200-pound pig to all the equipment needed to monitor their sleep isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s a more accurate way of observing sleep apnea as it occurs naturally. 

Yucatan mini pigs are actually one of the few non-human creatures known to have sleep apnea. As an article on Mini Pig Info explains, sleep apnea only occurs in obese Yucatan pigs, but it’s incredibly easy for them to become obese because they can’t regulate their own eating patterns. They’re just like us!