Surges of muscle sympathetic nerve activity during obstructive apnea are linked to hypoxemia

U. Leuenberger, E. Jacob, L. Sweer, N. Waravdekar, C. Zwillich, L. Sinoway

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Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is associated with oscillations of arterial blood pressure (BP) that occur in phase with irregularities of respiration. To explore the role of the sympathetic nervous system in these responses, we studied muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA; peroneal microneurography), an index of vasoconstrictor nerve traffic, and BP during awake regular breathing and during spontaneous apneas in patients with OSA. To determine the role of the arterial chemoreflex, we also examined the effects of 100% O2 (hyperoxia) on MSNA and BP. In awake regularly breathing patients with OSA (n = 12), resting MSNA was markedly higher than in an age-matched control population (n = 15) [41 ± 23 (SD) vs. 24 ± 17 bursts/min; P < 0.05] and was unchanged during hyperoxia (n = 9). Apneas during sleep (n = 8) were associated with surges in MSNA followed by transient rises in BP when breathing resumed. In contrast to room air apneas, hyperoxic apneas of similar duration were associated with attenuated MSNA responses (+82 ± 84% vs. +5 ± 25% compared with awake baseline; P < 0.05; n = 6), even though O2 did not affect sleep stage and the occurrence of arousal. Thus the BP oscillations that occur with apnea during sleep may in part be mediated by intermittent surges of sympathetic activity resulting in vasoconstriction. Because the MSNA responses to obstructive apnea are blunted during O2 administration, they appear to be linked to intermittent arterial hypoxemia and stimulation of arterial chemoreceptors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)581-588
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of applied physiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1995

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physiology
  • Physiology (medical)


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