The apnea test: rationale, confounders, and criticism

J Child Neurol. 2010 Nov;25(11):1435-43. doi: 10.1177/0883073810369380. Epub 2010 May 10.


The apnea test is recommended for the diagnosis of brain death. There are several reasons this test should be reconsidered. Confounding factors for performing the test are vaguely and poorly specified. The following 2 confounders are usually present and not considered: potentially reversible high cervical spinal cord injury and central endocrine failure of adrenal and thyroid axes. There are case reports of breathing at a higher partial pressure of arterial carbon dioxide threshold and cases of recovery of breathing after brain death is diagnosed. The test is dangerous for an injured brain in the setting of high intracranial pressure. It can convert viable penumbral brain tissue to irreversibly nonfunctioning tissue via a transient increase in intracranial pressure and no-reflow phenomena. Hyperoxia during the apnea test can further suppress the function of medullary respiratory rhythm centers. Finally, the philosophical rationale for the need to show lack of spontaneous breathing in brain death is lacking.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Apnea / physiopathology*
  • Brain Death / diagnosis*
  • Brain Death / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Respiratory Center / physiopathology*