Australian scientist Danny Eckert and his team have found previously unknown causes of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), local media reported on Thursday.
Eckert, a former Harvard researcher now at Neuroscience Research Australia said in his report that the study shows anatomy, weight and age are not the only causes of OSA.
"We've unearthed brand new problem areas," Eckert said.
These include muscle responsiveness in sleep, waking too easily and a response to carbon dioxide that builds up while asleep.
The discovery could lead to new treatments for people who suffer from OSA, he said.
"We might be able to treat these rather than focus solely on the problem of a collapsing airway, as we have until now," Eckert said.
"That's a pretty exciting development that takes treatment in a totally new direction."
The study has been published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, local media said.
Currently, about 1 million Australians with sleep apnea rely on a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device at night.
The treatment requires a bedside machine connected to a mask worn over the mouth and nose.
The study suggests that in future more than half of sleep apnea patients could be treated with medication.
Australasian Sleep Association president Nick Antic told local media that the finding proves the disease is far more complex than thought.
Antic said that potential new treatments could take years to reach patients.