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Sleep. 1996 Apr;19(3):236-47.

Sleep-induced breathing instability. University of Wisconsin-Madison Sleep and respiration Research Group.

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John Rankin Laboratory of Pulmonary Medicine, Department of Preventive Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison 53705, USA.


We present a view of the neuromechanical regulation of breathing and causes of breathing instability during sleep. First, we would expect transient increases in upper airway resistance to be a major cause of transient hypopnea. This occurs in sleep because a hypotonic upper airway is more susceptible to narrowing and because the immediate excitatory increase in respiratory motor output in response to increased loads is absent in non-REM sleep. Secondly, sleep predisposes to an increased occurrence of ventilatory "overshoots", in part because abruptly changing sleep states cause transient changes in upper airway resistance and in the gain of the respiratory controller. Following these ventilatory overshoots, breathing stability will be maintained if excitatory short-term potentiation is the prevailing influence. On the other hand, apnea and hypopnea will occur if inhibitory mechanisms dominate following the ventilatory overshoot. These inhibitory mechanisms include: a) hypocapnia-if transient, will inhibit carotid chemoreceptors and cause hypopnea, but if prolonged will inhibit medullary chemoreceptors and cause apnea; b) a persistent inhibitory effect from lung stretch; c) baroreceptor stimulation, from a transient rise in systemic blood pressure immediately following termination of apnea or hypopnea may partially suppress the accompanying hyperpnea; d) depression of central respiratory motor output via prolonged brain hypoxia. Once apneas are initiated, reinitiation of inspiration is delayed even though excitatory stimuli have risen well above their apneic thresholds, and these prolonged apneas are commonly accompanied by tonic EMG activation of expiratory muscles of the chest wall and upper airway.

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