BACKGROUND The effects of ketamine on respiration, alone, or in combination with opioids, have not been completely clarified. Both stimulant and depressant effects have been reported, as well as attenuation of opioid-induced hypoventilation at the expense of increased oxygen consumption. These conflicting results might partly be due to dose-dependent mechanisms. We have, therefore, determined the ventilatory effects of ketamine, in combination with alfentanil, using infusions to different pseudo steady-state concentrations. METHODS On two separate days, eight healthy male volunteers were given alfentanil as a continuous computer-controlled infusion, aiming at a plasma concentration of 50 ng x mL(-1). After reaching apparent steady-state for alfentanil, racemic ketamine or placebo was administered in a protocol randomised for the two days. On the ketamine days a computer-controlled infusion, aiming for escalating ketamine plasma concentrations of 50, 100 and 200 ng x mL(-1), was added to the alfentanil infusion. On the placebo days saline was added. Using a face-mask with an occlusion valve, respiratory parameters were measured during air-breathing and after 6 repetitive 30-s CO2 challenges. RESULTS The alfentanil infusion induced hypoventilation by decreasing respiratory rate, while tidal volume and respiratory drive were unaffected. This hypoventilation was antagonised by ketamine in a concentration-dependent manner mainly through an increase in respiratory rate. The CO2 response was not affected by alfentanil or ketamine. CONCLUSION In the dose range of interest for postoperative, intensive-care and pain-clinic settings, ketamine antagonises the resting hypoventilation induced by alfentanil.