Muscle nerve sympathetic activity (MSA) was recorded during wakefulness in 11 patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and in 9 sex- and age-matched healthy control subjects. Plasma levels of norepinephrine (NE) and neuropeptide Y were analyzed. Five patients had established hypertension (resting supine systolic BP/diastolic BP > or = 160/95 mm Hg). The investigation was performed after a minimum of 3 weeks' washout period of antihypertensive medication. Muscle sympathetic activity during supine rest was higher in patients compared with controls (p < 0.01) with no difference between normotensive and hypertensive patients. However, systolic, but not diastolic, BP was positively related to resting MSA (n = 20, p < 0.01). There was no significant correlation between body mass index and MSA. Resting MSA was unrelated to disease severity expressed as apnea frequency or minimum SaO2 during the overnight recording. Both the arterial and venous plasma norepinephrine was higher in patients compared with controls (p < 0.05). Plasma levels of NE correlated to resting MSA (p < 0.01) in the whole study group (patients and controls) but not within the respective subgroups. No significant correlation, however, was found between plasma NE (arterial and venous) and BP. Plasma neuropeptide Y-like immunoreactivity was similar in patients and controls. However, one patient with hypertension had approximately twice this level in repeated samples. It is concluded that neurogenic sympathetic activity as well as circulating plasma NE is increased in patients with OSA. This increased sympathetic activity during awake supine rest may reflect a pathophysiologic adaptation to hypoxia and hemodynamic changes occurring at repetitive apneas during sleep. The correlation between MSA and systolic BP implies that this mechanism may be directly or indirectly involved in the development of cardiovascular complications in OSA.