1. Six patients with chronic airflow limitation rebreathed CO2. Subsequently they voluntarily copied their stimulated breathing pattern while normocapnia was maintained. On a separate occasion four of these patients performed progressively increasing exercise and later copied these breathing patterns.
2. During all experiments flow, ventilation and pleural pressures were recorded. In addition, breathlessness was measured on a visual analogue scale every 30 s.
3. In these patients voluntary copying of either form of stimulated breathing resulted in diminished breathlessness and in some cases in complete abolition of the sensation, despite similar levels and patterns of ventilation in the two situations.
4. No systematic or consistent differences in the mechanics of breathing between stimulated and voluntarily copied breathing were found.
5. There was no correlation found between breathlessness score and any mechanical variable measured.
6. These results show that despite similarity in mechanics between stimulated and voluntary hyperventilation, the sensation of breathlessness is much diminished during the latter in these patients. This suggests that the sensation of breathlessness is more dependent upon the awareness of central processing than upon input from peripheral mechanoreceptors.