Impaired pharyngeal reflex responses to negative pressure: a novel cause of sleep apnea in multiple sclerosis

Hanna A. Hensen, Jayne C. Carberry, Arun V. Krishnan, Amal M. Osman, Anne Marie H. Mosch, Barbara Toson, Kevin L. Tay, Danny J. Eckert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is common in people with multiple sclerosis (MS). However, people with MS often do not have "typical" anatomical risk factors (i.e., nonobese and female predominance). Accordingly, nonanatomical factors such as impaired upper-airway muscle function may be particularly important for OSA pathogenesis in MS. Therefore, this study aimed to investigate genioglossus (largest upper-airway dilator muscle) reflex responses to brief pulses of upper-airway negative pressure in people with OSA and MS. Eleven people with MS and OSA and 10 OSA controls without MS matched for age, sex, and OSA severity were fitted with a nasal mask, pneumotachograph, choanal and epiglottic pressure sensors, and intramuscular electrodes into genioglossus. Approximately 60 brief (250 ms) negative pressure pulses (approximately -12 cmH2O mask pressure) were delivered every 2-6 breaths at random during quiet nasal breathing during wakefulness to determine genioglossus electromyogram (EMGgg) reflex responses (timing, amplitude, and morphology). Where available, recent clinical MRI brain scans were evaluated for the number, size, and location of brainstem lesions in the group with MS. When present, genioglossus reflex excitation responses were similar between MS participants and controls (e.g., peak excitation amplitude = 229 ± 85% vs. 282 ± 98% baseline, P = 0.17). However, ∼30% of people with MS had either an abnormal (predominantly inhibition) or no protective excitation reflex. Participants with MS without a reflex had multiple brainstem lesions including in the hypoglossal motor nucleus which may impair sensory processing and/or efferent output. Impaired pharyngeal reflex function may be an important contributor to OSA pathogenesis for a proportion of people with MS.NEW & NOTEWORTHY This study investigated the function of an important reflex that helps protect the upper airway from closing during negative (suction) pressure in people with and without multiple sclerosis (MS) and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). We found that ∼30% of people with MS had either no protective reflex or an abnormal reflex response. These findings indicate that impaired upper-airway reflex function may be an important contributor to OSA for a substantial proportion of people with MS.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)815-823
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Applied Physiology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2022


  • genioglossus
  • sleep-disordered breathing
  • upper-airway physiology


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