Researcher Profile: Cynthia Brown, M.D.

Cynthia BrownCynthia Brown, M.D. views herself as a problem-solver who has always strived to conquer whatever seemed most challenging. Only the second person in her family to attend college, she now is also an American Lung Association Scholar—viewed by her peers as one of the best and the brightest researchers throughout the U.S.

As a physician specializing in sleep disorders and other pulmonary diseases, Dr. Brown has found her niche working to solve a very common problem among people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and to improve their individual daily lives. Through her first American Lung Association-funded research project, Dr. Brown has studied the effectiveness of a new device to improve COPD patients’ quality of sleep. More than 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, which often causes poor sleep, but scientists do not yet fully understand the underlying causes of the sleep problems. While everyone’s muscles, including those at the back of the throat, relax during sleep, COPD patients may have greater difficulty adapting to these changes.

“The underlying disease prevents them from being able to exhale fully, and it takes more time to exhale,” Dr. Brown explains. “Our hypothesis is that there’s an improper balance between the time COPD patients need to inhale and exhale. ”The device she and her team have tested, a nasal insufflation device, sends warmed and humidified air into the nostrils to create a small amount of pressure in the back of the throat. The pressure relieves the patient’s muscle changes as he or she inhales and exhales; it improves air flow as people inhale and allows them to maintain their normal breathing patterns. The device is a larger, specialized version of an oxygen cannula, which is used to deliver oxygen through the nose. Dr. Brown’s initial results show promise for improving sleep with nasal insufflation. During brief trials of the device during sleep, individuals have less wakenings, breathe more deeply while sleeping, and have lower carbon dioxide levels. In addition to addressing COPD patients’ sleep problems, the results may add to medicine’s understanding of the effectiveness of patients’ nighttime-only use of oxygen, which is often prescribed.

As I treated people with COPD, I realized how prevalent sleep problems are and how little we know about them. We don’t have a solution yet, but we are working to understand the problem so that we can improve patients’ sleep.

Dr. Brown’s research focuses on sleep disorders inadvertently brought her back to her basic desire to take on and conquer a challenge. “I had once thought that sleep medicine was simplistic in some ways, that I’d be bored seeing the same type of patient day after day”, she confesses. “But as it turns out, the COPD patients I see as part of my general pulmonology work have a very prevalent sleep problem that we don’t have a solution to yet. I want to sit with a person and figure out how to help them. Through this research, I’m able to investigate not only the problem but how we can improve sleep to improve the quality of life for COPD patients. The research is all about helping people live the best life possible!” she says.

What is COPD?

COPD is a lung disease that over time makes it hard to breathe. COPD (short for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Obstruction that occurs in COPD means that there is less flow of air in and out of the lungs than there should be. When that happens, less oxygen gets into the body tissues and it becomes harder to get rid of carbon dioxide, which is the waste gas. As the disease gets worse, it is harder to remain active due to shortness of breath.

The good news is that COPD is often preventable and treatable.The more you can learn about COPD, the better you and your loved ones can manage living with this disease, making the most of every day, and maintaining the quality of life that is important to you. To learn more, visit the COPD section of this website, or call the Lung Helpline at 1-800-548-8252.