Oxygen therapy is known to reduce loop gain (LG) in patients with obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), yet its effects on the other traits responsible for OSA remain unknown. Therefore, we assessed how hyperoxia and hypoxia alter four physiological traits in OSA patients. Eleven OSA subjects underwent a night of polysomnography during which the physiological traits were measured using multiple 3-min 'drops' from therapeutic continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) levels. LG was defined as the ratio of the ventilatory overshoot to the preceding reduction in ventilation. Pharyngeal collapsibility was quantified as the ventilation at CPAP of 0 cmH2O. Upper airway responsiveness was defined as the ratio of the increase in ventilation to the increase in ventilatory drive across the drop. Arousal threshold was estimated as the level of ventilatory drive associated with arousal. On separate nights, subjects were submitted to hyperoxia (n = 9; FiO2 ∼0.5) or hypoxia (n = 10; FiO2 ∼0.15) and the four traits were reassessed. Hyperoxia lowered LG from a median of 3.4 [interquartile range (IQR): 2.6-4.1] to 2.1 (IQR: 1.3-2.5) (P < 0.01), but did not alter the remaining traits. By contrast, hypoxia increased LG [median: 3.3 (IQR: 2.3-4.0) vs. 6.4 (IQR: 4.5-9.7); P < 0.005]. Hypoxia additionally increased the arousal threshold (mean ± s.d. 10.9 ± 2.1 l min(-1) vs. 13.3 ± 4.3 l min(-1); P < 0.05) and improved pharyngeal collapsibility (mean ± s.d. 3.4 ± 1.4 l min(-1) vs. 4.9 ± 1.3 l min(-1); P < 0.05), but did not alter upper airway responsiveness (P = 0.7). This study demonstrates that the beneficial effect of hyperoxia on the severity of OSA is primarily based on its ability to reduce LG. The effects of hypoxia described above may explain the disappearance of OSA and the emergence of central sleep apnoea in conditions such as high altitude.
© 2014 The Authors. The Journal of Physiology © 2014 The Physiological Society.