We hypothesized that a decreased susceptibility to the development of hypocapnic central apnea during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep in women compared with men could be an explanation for the gender difference in the sleep apnea/hypopnea syndrome. We studied eight men (age 25-35 yr) and eight women in the midluteal phase of the menstrual cycle (age 21-43 yr); we repeated studies in six women during the midfollicular phase. Hypocapnia was induced via nasal mechanical ventilation for 3 min, with respiratory frequency matched to eupneic frequency. Tidal volume (VT) was increased between 110 and 200% of eupneic control. Cessation of mechanical ventilation resulted in hypocapnic central apnea or hypopnea, depending on the magnitude of hypocapnia. Nadir minute ventilation in the recovery period was plotted against the change in end-tidal PCO(2) (PET(CO(2))) per trial; minute ventilation was given a value of 0 during central apnea. The apneic threshold was defined as the x-intercept of the linear regression line. In women, induction of a central apnea required an increase in VT to 155 +/- 29% (mean +/- SD) and a reduction of PET(CO(2)) by -4.72 +/- 0.57 Torr. In men, induction of a central apnea required an increase in VT to 142 +/- 13% and a reduction of PET(CO(2)) by -3.54 +/- 0.31 Torr (P = 0.002). There was no difference in the apneic threshold between the follicular and the luteal phase in women. Premenopausal women are less susceptible to hypocapnic disfacilitation during NREM sleep than men. This effect was not explained by progesterone. Preservation of ventilatory motor output during hypocapnia may explain the gender difference in sleep apnea.