Infants with myelomeningocele have abnormalities in ventilatory control. To determine whether these persist into later life, we studied 14 patients with myelomeningocele and Arnold-Chiari malformation (age 18.0 +/- 0.8 (SE) years), and compared them with 14 control subjects (age 24.0 +/- 0.9 years). Pulmonary function and ventilatory muscle strength did not differ between patients with myelomeningocele and control subjects. Hypercapnic ventilatory responses were significantly lower in the group with myelomeningocele (1.98 L/min/mm Hg) compared with control values (3.33 L/min/mm Hg; p less than 0.01). Hypoxic ventilatory responses (-1.4 L/min/%oxygen saturation of hemoglobin in arterial blood) were not significantly different from control values (-2.14 L/min/%oxygen saturation). In control subjects the hypercapnic and hypoxic ventilatory responses were highly correlated with each other within subjects (r = 0.84; p less than 0.002) but not in those with myelomeningocele (r = 0.34; not significant). We concluded that adolescents and young adults with myelomeningocele have abnormalities in control of ventilation during sleep and wakefulness. We speculate that the Arnold-Chiari malformation interferes with central chemosensitivity (hypercapnic ventilatory response) and central integration of chemoreceptor output.