Ventilatory Drive Withdrawal Rather Than Reduced Genioglossus Compensation as a Mechanism of Obstructive Sleep Apnea in REM Sleep

Ludovico Messineo, Danny J. Eckert, Luigi Taranto-Montemurro, Daniel Vena, Ali Azarbarzin, Lauren B. Hess, Nicole Calianese, David P. White, Andrew Wellman, Laura Gell, Scott A. Sands

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)


Rationale: REM sleep is associated with reduced ventilation and greater obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) severity than non-REM (nREM) sleep for reasons that have not been fully elucidated. Objectives: Here, we use direct physiological measurements to determine whether the pharyngeal compromise in REM sleep OSA is most consistent with 1) withdrawal of neural ventilatory drive or 2) deficits in pharyngeal pathophysiology per se (i.e., increased collapsibility and decreased muscle responsiveness). Methods: Sixty-three participants with OSA completed sleep studies with gold standard measurements of ventilatory “drive” (calibrated intraesophageal diaphragm EMG), ventilation (oronasal “ventilation”), and genioglossus EMG activity. Drive withdrawal was assessed by examining these measurements at nadir drive (first decile of drive within a stage). Pharyngeal physiology was assessed by examining collapsibility (lowered ventilation at eupneic drive) and responsiveness (ventilation–drive slope). Mixed-model analysis compared REM sleep with nREM sleep; sensitivity analysis examined phasic REM sleep. Measurements and Main Results: REM sleep (>10 min) was obtained in 25 patients. Compared with drive in nREM sleep, drive in REM sleep dipped to markedly lower nadir values (first decile, estimate [95% confidence interval], 221.8% [231.2% to 212.4%] of eupnea; P, 0.0001), with an accompanying reduction in ventilation (225.8% [231.8% to 219.8%] of eupnea; P, 0.0001). However, there was no effect of REM sleep on collapsibility (ventilation at eupneic drive), baseline genioglossus EMG activity, or responsiveness. REM sleep was associated with increased OSA severity (110.1 [1.8 to 19.8] events/h), but this association was not present after adjusting for nadir drive (14.3 [24.2 to 14.6] events/h). Drive withdrawal was exacerbated in phasic REM sleep. Conclusions: In patients with OSA, the pharyngeal compromise characteristic of REM sleep appears to be predominantly explained by ventilatory drive withdrawal rather than by preferential decrements in muscle activity or responsiveness. Preventing drive withdrawal may be the leading target for REM sleep OSA.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)219-232
Number of pages14
JournalAmerican journal of respiratory and critical care medicine
Issue number2
Early online date26 Oct 2021
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jan 2022


  • Drive withdrawal
  • Pharyngeal muscle responsiveness
  • Phasic
  • REM sleep hypotonia
  • REM sleep pathogenesis
  • Tonic REM sleep


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