Pharyngeal dilator muscles are clearly important in the pathogenesis of obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome. Substantial data support the role of a local negative pressure reflex in modifying genioglossal activation across inspiration during wakefulness. Using a model of passive negative pressure ventilation, we have previously reported a tight relationship between varying intrapharyngeal negative pressures and genioglossal muscle activation (GGEMG) during wakefulness. In this study, we used this model to examine the slope of the relationship between epiglottic pressure (Pepi) and GGEMG, during stable NREM sleep and the transition from wakefulness to sleep. We found that there was a constant relationship between negative epiglottic pressure and GGEMG during both basal breathing (BB) and negative pressure ventilation (NPV) during wakefulness (slope GGEMG/Pepi 1.86+/-0.3 vs. 1.79+/-0.3 arbitrary units (a.u.) cmH2O(-1)). However, while this relationship remained stable during NREM sleep during BB, it was markedly reduced during NPV during sleep (2.27+/-0.4 vs. 0.58+/-0.1 a.u. cmH2O(-1)). This was associated with a markedly higher pharyngeal airflow resistance during sleep during NPV. At the transition from wakefulness to sleep there was also a greater reduction in peak GGEMG seen during NPV than during BB. These data suggest that while the negative pressure reflex is able to maintain GGEMG during passive NPV during wakefulness, this reflex is unable to do so during sleep. The loss of this protective mechanism during sleep suggests that an airway dependent upon such mechanisms (as in the patient with sleep apnoea) will be prone to collapse during sleep.