Upper airway muscles and the diaphragm may have different quantitative responses to chemoreceptor stimulation. To compare the respiratory muscle responses to changes in CO2, 10 ventilator-dependent preterm infants (gestational age 28 +/- 1 wk, postnatal age 40 +/- 6 days, weight 1.4 +/- 0.1 kg) were passively hyperventilated to apnea and subsequently hypoventilated. Electromyograms from the genioglossus, alae nasi, posterior cricoarytenoid, and diaphragm were recorded from surface electrodes. Apneic CO2 thresholds of all upper airway muscles (genioglossus 46.8 +/- 4.3 Torr, alae nasi 42.4 +/- 3.6 Torr, posterior cricoarytenoid 41.6 +/- 3.2 Torr) were higher than those of the diaphragm (38.8 +/- 2.6 Torr, all P less than 0.05). Above their CO2 threshold levels, responses of all upper airway muscles appeared proportional to those of the diaphragm. We conclude that nonproportional responses of the respiratory muscles to hypercapnia may be the result of differences in their CO2 threshold. These differences in CO2 threshold may cause imbalance in respiratory muscle activation with changes in chemical drive, leading to upper airway instability and obstructive apnea.