Obstructive sleep apnea is a common breathing problem that results in recurrent episodes of nighttime hypoxemia, hypercapnia, bradytachycardia, and hypertension, as well as sleep disturbance and daytime hypersomnolence. The obstruction is located in the oropharynx and is caused by hypotonia of the pharyngeal dilator muscles. In this paper, the various mechanisms affecting motor output to the upper airway muscles are reviewed. In particular, the respiratory function of the pharyngeal dilator muscles, the various reflex mechanisms underlying their control, and the effects of sleep on these mechanisms are discussed. The literature relevant to the central neuronal circuits and neurotransmitters that may be involved in the state-dependent activity of the pharyngeal dilator muscles is also reviewed. In addition to an examination of these basic mechanisms, consideration is given throughout this review as to how these mechanisms may relate to the normal control of pharyngeal patency awake and asleep and how they may be involved in the pathogenesis of obstructive sleep apnea.