Breathlessness induced by hypercapnia may be related to the sensation of respiratory effort or to the central or peripheral effects of CO2. To examine the relationship among breathlessness, respiratory effort, and hypercapnia, we studied eight normal naive subjects. By using a visual feedback system, subjects maintained a constant ventilation of 50-60 L/min. PETCO2 was held at 40 mm Hg during the first 2 min of each trial (control period), then for 4 min (test period) was either kept at 40 mm Hg or elevated to 50 mm Hg. At the end of each control and test period, subjects were asked to give separate ratings for dyspnea (an unpleasant urge to breathe) and for the sense of respiratory effort (analogous to lifting a weight) on a 50-cm visual analog scale. Hypercapnia was associated with a significant reduction in effort ratings (-7.3 +/- 6.4, mean +/- SD, p < 0.05) and a concomitant increase in dyspnea (+6.6 +/- 6.0, p < 0.05). We conclude that dyspnea associated with hypercapnia is dissociated from changes in respiratory effort, and that CO2 has a direct central effect that leads to breathlessness. Our data also suggest that the sense of effort at a given level of ventilation is less when the ventilation is the result of "reflex" stimuli to breathe rather than "voluntary" signals to the respiratory muscles.