This study assessed the effects of inhaled lignocaine to reduce upper airway surface mechanoreceptor activity on 1) basal genioglossus and tensor palatini EMG, 2) genioglossus reflex responses to large pulses (∼10 cmH2O) of negative airway pressure, and 3) upper airway collapsibility in 15 awake individuals. Genioglossus and tensor palatini muscle EMG and airway pressures were recorded during quiet nasal breathing and during brief pulses (250 ms) of negative upper-airway pressure. Lignocaine reduced peak inspiratory (5.6 ± 1.5 vs. 3.8 ± 1.1% maximum; mean ± SE, P < 0.01) and tonic (2.8 ± 0.8 vs. 2.1 ± 0.7% maximum; P < 0.05) genioglossus EMG during quiet breathing but had no effect on tensor palatini EMG (5.0 ± 0.8 vs. 5.0 ± 0.5% maximum; P = 0.97). Genioglossus reflex excitation to negative pressure pulses decreased after anesthesia (60.9 ± 20.7 vs. 23.6 ± 5.2 μV; P < 0.05), but not when expressed as a percentage of the immediate prestimulus baseline. Reflex excitation was closely related to the change in baseline EMG following lignocaine (r2 = 0.98). A short-latency genioglossus reflex to rapid increases from negative to atmospheric pressure was also observed. The upper airway collapsibility index (%difference) between nadir choanal and epiglottic pressure increased after lignocaine (17.8 ± 3.7 vs. 28.8 ± 7.5%; P <0.05). These findings indicate that surface receptors modulate genioglossus but not tensor palatini activity during quiet breathing. However, removal of input from surface mechanoreceptors has minimal effect on genioglossus reflex responses to large (±10 cmH2O), sudden changes in airway pressure. Changes in pressure rather than negative pressure per se can elicit genioglossus reflex responses. These findings challenge previous views and have important implications for upper airway muscle control.