Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC San Diego

UC San Diego Previously Published Works bannerUC San Diego

Physiological Mechanisms of Upper Airway Hypotonia during REM Sleep


Study objectives

Rapid eye movement (REM)-induced hypotonia of the major upper airway dilating muscle (genioglossus) potentially contributes to the worsening of obstructive sleep apnea that occurs during this stage. No prior human single motor unit (SMU) study of genioglossus has examined this possibility to our knowledge. We hypothesized that genioglossus SMUs would reduce their activity during stable breathing in both tonic and phasic REM compared to stage N2 sleep. Further, we hypothesized that hypopneas occurring in REM would be associated with coincident reductions in genioglossus SMU activity.


The activity of genioglossus SMUs was studied in (1) neighboring epochs of stage N2, and tonic and phasic REM; and (2) during hypopneas occurring in REM.


Sleep laboratory.


29 subjects (38 ± 13 y) (17 male).


Natural sleep, including REM sleep and REM hypopneas.

Measurement and results

Subjects slept overnight with genioglossus fine-wire intramuscular electrodes and full polysomnography. Forty-two SMUs firing during one or more of stage N2, tonic REM, or phasic REM were sorted. Twenty inspiratory phasic (IP), 17 inspiratory tonic (IT), and five expiratory tonic (ET) SMUs were characterized. Fewer units were active during phasic REM (23) compared to tonic REM (30) and stage N2 (33). During phasic REM sleep, genioglossus IP and IT SMUs discharged at slower rates and for shorter durations than during stage N2. For example, the SMU peak frequency during phasic REM 5.7 ± 6.6 Hz (mean ± standard deviation) was less than both tonic REM 12.3 ± 9.7 Hz and stage N2 16.1 ± 10.0 Hz (P < 0.001). The peak firing frequencies of IP/IT SMUs decreased from the last breath before to the first breath of a REM hypopnea (11.8 ± 10.9 Hz versus 5.7 ± 9.4 Hz; P = 0.001).


Genioglossus single motor unit activity is significantly reduced in REM sleep, particularly phasic REM. Single motor unit activity decreases abruptly at the onset of REM hypopneas.

Many UC-authored scholarly publications are freely available on this site because of the UC's open access policies. Let us know how this access is important for you.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View