Breathing Neurons

How is the breathing rhythm generated?

Breathing is a seemingly simple, fundamental behavior that occurs about 12 times each minute. In addition, our breath switches between different types, like sighs, yawns, and sniffs, and we must coordinate our breath with other behaviors, like swallowing and coughing. Our hypothesis is that subsets of neurons within the brainstem breathing pacemaker node carry out these different tasks. Recently we have identified three molecularly distinct neural types, each ~100-200 neurons, that pace basal breathing (Oprm1/Dbx1), switch a normal breath into a sigh breath (Nmbr/Grpr), and relay the breathing signal to a higher brainstem center that promotes arousal (Cdh9/Dbx1). These examples validate our presumption and motivate us to continue to explore the molecular and functional diversity of neurons within the breathing pacemaker node. Ultimately, we hope this work will pave a path for developing thoughtful, specific pharmacological approaches to control certain aspects breathing which could treat some of the most common as well as some of the most devastating diseases in medicine, like sleep apnea and sudden infant death.