Intravenously administered adenosine may increase ventilation (VI) and the ventilatory response to CO2 (HCVR). Inasmuch as we have previously hypothesized that those with higher HCVR may be more prone to periodic breathing during sleep, we measured VI and HCVR and monitored ventilatory pattern in seven healthy subjects before and during an infusion of adenosine (80 micrograms.kg-1.min-1) during uninterrupted sleep. Adenosine increased the mean sleeping VI (7.6 +/- 0.4 vs. 6.5 +/- 0.4 l/min, P less than 0.05) and decreased mean end-tidal CO2 values (42.4 +/- 1.2 vs. 43.7 +/- 1.0 Torr, P = 0.06, paired t test) during stable breathing. In six of seven subjects, periodic breathing occurred during this infusion. The amplitude (maximum VI--mean VI) and period length of this periodic breathing was variable among subjects and not predicted by baseline HCVR [correlation coefficients (r) = 0.64, P = 0.17 and r = -0.1, P = 0.9, respectively]. Attempts to measure HCVR during adenosine infusion were unsuccessful because of frequent arousals and continued periodic breathing despite hyperoxic hypercapnia. We conclude that adenosine infusion increases VI and produces periodic breathing during sleep in most normal subjects studied.