Based on the theory that obstructive (OSA) and central (CSA) sleep apneas share common pathophysiologic mechanisms, we attempted to treat eight patients with predominantly CSA by continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). All patients exhibited repetitive episodes of CSA and mixed sleep apneas (MSA) in the supine position with a mean duration of 23.7 +/- 0.7 s and 34.5 +/- 1.3 s, respectively. The pattern of apnea changed when the subject lay in the lateral position. Five patients were observed to develop OSA in the lateral position with a mean duration of 27.2 +/- 1.5 s, while the other three patients snored continuously. High levels of CPAP (range 9.0 to 16.5 cm H2O) prevented all CSA and MSA and resulted in quiet breathing in all eight patients. Intermediate levels of CPAP produced firstly MSA, then purely OSA and/or continuous snoring. Low levels of nasal CPAP also prevented OSA and snoring occurring in the lateral posture in all subjects (range 2.0 to 8.3 cm H2O). Three patients are currently on home CPAP therapy for a range of four to 36 months. We conclude that upper airway collapse in the supine posture has a key role in the induction of CSA. We suggest that a reflex inhibition of respiration through activation of supraglottic mucosal receptors during passive oropharyngeal airway closure caused CSA in these patients.