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Blood pressure, heart rate, sympathetic nerve activity, and polysomnography were recorded during wakefulness and sleep in 10 patients with obstructive sleep apnea. Measurements were also obtained after treatment with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) in four patients. Awake sympathetic activity was also measured in 10 age- and sex-matched control subjects and in 5 obese subjects without a history of sleep apnea. Patients with sleep apnea had high levels of nerve activity even when awake (P < 0.001). Blood pressure and sympathetic nerve activity did not fall during any stage of sleep. Mean blood pressure was 92 +/- 4.5 mmHg when awake and reached peak levels of 116 +/- 5 and 127 +/- 7 mmHg during stage II sleep (n = 10) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (n = 5), respectively (P < 0.001). Sympathetic activity increased during sleep (P = 0.01) especially during stage II (133 +/- 9% above wakefulness; P = 0.006) and REM (141 +/- 13%; P = 0.007). Peak sympathetic activity (measured over the last 10 s of each apneic event) increased to 299 +/- 96% during stage II sleep and to 246 +/- 36% during REM sleep (both P < 0.001). CPAP decreased sympathetic activity and blood pressure during sleep (P < 0.03). We conclude that patients with obstructive sleep apnea have high sympathetic activity when awake, with further increases in blood pressure and sympathetic activity during sleep. These increases are attenuated by treatment with CPAP.