We evaluated protriptyline, a nonsedating tricyclic antidepressant, as a treatment for obstructive sleep apnea in a double-blind crossover study of five men. After two weeks of treatment, with no change in body weight, daytime somnolence was markedly reduced and nocturnal oxygenation was improved, although apnea duration and frequency were not significantly decreased. Rapid-eye-movement (REM) stage time as a fraction of the total sleep time was reduced during treatment from 0.231 +/- 0.031 to 0.107 +/- 0.013 (mean +/- S.E.M.) (P less than 0.05). REM apnea time as a fraction of total sleep time was reduced from 0.145 +/- 0.022 to 0.054 +/- 0.006 (P less than 0.05). REM reduction during treatment with protriptyline can account for decreased REM apnea time. Similar decreases in REM stage time and REM apnea duration and similar improvement in oxygenation continued after six months of treatment. In addition, body weight, apnea, and arousal frequency were decreased at this time. Although the obstructive sleep apnea was not resolved, it was reduced. Protriptyline can be effective in patients with sleep apnea when the disorder is not life-threatening.