Understanding the breathing rhythm: respiratory pacemaker neurons located in the brain



Breathing in mammals is one of the perpetual rhythms of life, supporting all physiological processes in the body. However, the basic cellular and circuit mechanisms in the brain generating this rhythm have not been discovered, representing a fundamental gap in understanding the vital neurophysiological processes required for life.


IRP researchers, led by Jeffrey Smith, Ph.D., developed methods to optically observe the activity of neurons in critical, respiratory rhythm-generating circuits in a part of the brainstem called the preBötzinger complex using living slices of brainstem tissue from rats. This new approach revealed that certain subpopulations of cells in the preBötzinger complex have pacemaker properties, answering a longstanding question of whether such cells could be involved in breathing rhythms.


Neurophysiologists have long been on a quest to uncover the neural processes generating the breathing rhythm within the brainstem’s respiratory neural control system. The finding of pacemaker neurons provides new insights into the mechanisms controlling normal breathing rhythm and could be important for understanding breathing arrhythmias in neuropathological conditions such as life-threatening disordered breathing during sleep.


Koshiya N, Smith JC. (1999). Neuronal pacemaker for breathing visualized in vitro. Nature. 400: 360–363.

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This page was last updated on Friday, August 11, 2023