We have previously shown in patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) that the length of apneas increases from the beginning to the end of the night (Chest 1994;106:1695-1701). To investigate this, in light of recent evidence that neural feedback related to inspiratory effort during apneas plays an important role in apnea termination (Am. J. Respir. Crit. Care Med. 1994;149:707-714), we measured transdiaphragmatic pressure (Pdi) and the diaphragm tension-time index (TTdi = Pdi/Pdi(max)) Ti/Ttot) during overnight polysomnography in seven male subjects with severe OSA (mean apnea-hypopnea index [AHI] = 64.1 +/- 8.8 [SD] events/h). We assessed apnea duration, SaO2, and inspiratory effort during apneas at the start and end of the night in Stage 2 sleep. Mean apnea duration increased from 26.6 +/- 2.0 s (SEM) to 32.6 =/- 2.5 s (p < 0.05). The rate of fall in SaO2 during apneas decreased, and end-apneic SaO2 remained unchanged across the night, suggesting a possible role for metabolic factors in mediating the increase in apnea duration. Both Pdi and TTdi at end-apnea just prior to arousal increased significantly from the beginning to the end of the night (e.g., Pdi from 41.0 +/- 4.9 to 49.9 +/- 7.9 cm H20; p < 0.05). These findings, together with those in previous studies, suggest that there is a blunting over the night of the arousal response to neural stimuli produced during obstructed inspiratory effort, which plays a major role in mediating apnea lengthening across the night in OSA.