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Obstructive sleep apnoea is a condition where breathing is briefly but repeatedly interrupted during sleep. It occurs when the throat muscles fail to keep the airway open during sleep despite efforts to breathe. 

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), had in a previous study, found that dronabinol – a cannabinoid agonist – held significant potential for treating sleep apnoea.

While a cannabinoid is any of a group of closely related compounds which include cannabinol and the active constituents of cannabis, an agonist is a substance which initiates a physiological response when combined with a receptor.

The new study showed that "six weeks of treatment by the highest dose of dronabinol (10 milligrams) was associated with a lower frequency of apnoeas or hypopnoeas during sleep, decreased subjective sleepiness and greater overall treatment satisfaction", said David Carley, Professor at UIC.

Sleep-related breathing disorders, especially obstructive sleep apnoea, pose significant health problems. Individuals suffering from sleep apnoea have an increased risk for coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.

In the study, presented at the SLEEP 2017 annual meeting in Boston, the participants received the drug once daily before bed for six weeks.

"At the present time, there are no approved drug treatments for sleep apnoea and there remains an important unmet need for fully effective and acceptable treatments of the disorder," Carley said.

"By providing a path towards the first viable obstructive sleep apnoea drug, our studies could have a major impact on clinical practice," he added.