The classical starling resistor model often does not predict inspiratory airflow patterns in the human upper airway.

Robert Owens, Bradley Edwards, Scott Sands, J Butler, Danny Eckert, David White, A Malhotra, Andrew Wellman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


The upper airway is often modeled as a classical Starling resistor, featuring a constant inspiratory airflow, or plateau, over a range of downstream pressures. However, airflow tracings from clinical sleep studies often show an initial peak before the plateau. To conform to the Starling model, the initial peak must be of small magnitude or dismissed as a transient. We developed a method to simulate fast or slow inspirations through the human upper airway, to test the hypothesis that this initial peak is a transient. Eight subjects [4 obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), 4 controls] slept in an "iron lung" and wore a nasal mask connected to a continuous/bilevel positive airway pressure machine. Downstream pressure was measured using an epiglottic catheter. During non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, subjects were hyperventilated to produce a central apnea, then extrathoracic pressure was decreased slowly (∼2-4 s) or abruptly (<0.5 s) to lower downstream pressure and create inspiratory airflow. Pressure-flow curves were constructed for flow-limited breaths, and slow vs. fast reductions in downstream pressure were compared. All subjects exhibited an initial peak and then a decrease in flow with more negative pressures, demonstrating negative effort dependence (NED). The rate of change in downstream pressure did not affect the peak to plateau airflow ratio: %NED 22 ± 13% (slow) vs. 20 ± 5% (fast), P = not significant. We conclude that the initial peak in inspiratory airflow is not a transient but rather a distinct mechanical property of the upper airway. In contrast to the classical Starling resistor model, the upper airway exhibits marked NED in some subjects.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1105-1112
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Applied Physiology
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2014


  • Lung
  • Negative effort dependence
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Pharyngeal upper airway
  • Starling resistor


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