In animals with intact peripheral chemosensory afferents, hypoxia differentially affects upper airway (UA) and chest wall muscles. To determine the contribution of brain stem (BS) hypoxia to the response of UA and chest wall muscles during early life, we perfused the BS through a vertebral artery intermittently with blood from an extracorporeal circuit in nine newborn piglets (age 1-5 days). BS perfusions were performed with hypoxemic blood (arterial PO2 32 +/- 6 to 38 +/- 8 Torr) with different levels of BS PCO2 (28 +/- 2, 37 +/- 4, and 56 +/- 5 Torr) while systemic normocapnic hyperoxia was maintained (arterial PCO2 36 +/- 3 to 40 +/- 6 Torr, arterial PO2 345 +/- 73 to 392 +/- 37 Torr). Electromyograms (EMGs) of alae nasi (AN), external intercostal (EI), and diaphragm (DIA) were recorded. Normocapnic hypoxia of the BS induced a sustained increase in AN EMG (P < 0.01, analysis of variance) and depression of EI and DIA EMGs without a transient increase. These contrasting responses were also observed during hypocapnic and hypercapnic hypoxia of the BS and were not affected by inputs from the peripheral chemoreceptors or rostral cerebral structures that were not exposed to hypoxia. We conclude that, despite eliciting the known central respiratory depression, BS hypoxia causes an increase in the respiratory drive to an UA airway muscle. Thus, BS hypoxia elicits a selective rather than a generalized respiratory muscle depression. The respiratory muscles with high energy expenditure (DIA and EI) are depressed while UA muscles are stimulated or disinhibited. This response is independent of the level of BS arterial PCO2.