Enhanced upper-airway muscle responsiveness is a distinct feature of overweight/obese individuals without sleep apnea

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2014 Oct 15;190(8):930-7. doi: 10.1164/rccm.201404-0783OC.


Rationale: Body habitus is a major determinant of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). However, many individuals do not have OSA despite being overweight/obese (body mass index > 25 kg/m(2)) for reasons that are not fully elucidated.

Objectives: To determine the key physiologic traits (upper-airway anatomy/collapsibility, upper-airway muscle responsiveness, chemoreflex control of ventilation, arousability from sleep) responsible for the absence of OSA in overweight/obese individuals.

Methods: We compared key physiologic traits in 18 overweight/obese subjects without apnea (apnea-hypopnea index < 15 events per hour) with 25 overweight/obese matched patients with OSA (apnea-hypopnea index ≥ 15 events per hour) and 11 normal-weight nonapneic control subjects. Traits were measured by repeatedly lowering continuous positive airway pressure to subtherapeutic levels for 3 minutes during non-REM sleep.

Measurements and main results: Overweight/obese subjects without apnea exhibited a less collapsible airway than overweight/obese patients with apnea (critical closing pressure: -3.7 ± 1.9 vs. 0.6 ± 1.2 cm H2O; P = 0.003; mean ± 95% confidence interval), but a more collapsible airway relative to normal-weight control subjects (-8.8 ± 3.1 cm H2O; P < 0.001). Notably, overweight/obese subjects without apnea exhibited a threefold greater upper-airway muscle responsiveness than both overweight/obese patients with apnea (Δgenioglossus EMG/Δepiglottic pressure: -0.49 [-0.22 to -0.79] vs. -0.15 [-0.09 to -0.22] %max/cm H2O; P = 0.008; mean [95% confidence interval]) and normal-weight control subjects (-0.16 [-0.04 to -0.30] %max/cm H2O; P = 0.02). Loop gain was elevated (more negative) in both overweight/obese groups and normal-weight control subjects (P = 0.02). Model-based analysis demonstrated that overweight/obese individuals without apnea rely on both more favorable anatomy and collapsibility and enhanced upper-airway dilator muscle responses to avoid OSA.

Conclusions: Overweight/obese individuals without apnea have a moderately compromised upper-airway structure that is mitigated by highly responsive upper-airway dilator muscles to avoid OSA. Elucidating the mechanisms underlying enhanced muscle responses in this population may provide clues for novel OSA interventions.

Keywords: apnea phenotypes; control of breathing; mathematical model; obesity; upper airway muscles.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Biological
  • Muscle, Smooth / physiopathology*
  • Obesity / complications
  • Obesity / physiopathology
  • Overweight / complications
  • Overweight / physiopathology*
  • Pharynx / physiopathology*
  • Polysomnography
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / etiology*
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / physiopathology
  • Sleep Stages