- Although apnea is common in premature babies, there is a paucity of information concerning the pathophysiologic basis of these episodes and their relationship to other perinatal conditions such as hyperbilirubinemia. Unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia in premature infants, even in moderately high levels, may cause encephalopathy affecting brainstem functions and has been linked to increased incidence of apnea in these infants. Thus, there is a need to clarify mechanisms by which bilirubin may alter respiratory control and induce apnea of prematurity. In this study, bilirubin or placebo was infused intravenously in 9 day-old rat pups, n=36. Serum hyperbilirubinemia peaked in the first hours after bilirubin infusion. Twenty four hours after bilirubin infusion, respiration was recorded by plethysmography at rest and under hypercapnic and hypoxic conditions. In treated pups, minute ventilation on room air was significantly reduced, hyperventilatory response to CO2 was blunted and hypoxic ventilatory depression was increased, as compared to placebo injected rat pups. Brainstem bilirubin deposition and immunoreactivity to bilirubin was detected in the brainstem on histologic analysis. We speculate that high serum bilirubin levels may cause prolonged inhibition of brainstem autonomic function and that this could underlie the exacerbation of apnea noted in premature babies who have experienced jaundice.