Researchers identify neurons in the brain that control nasofacial muscles during breathing

Whilst most of us consider breathing a relatively simple process, it actually requires complex coordination of many muscles to enable airflow into and out of the lungs and to control airflow to allow us to talk, eat, and drink.

Breathing also influences other related brain functions, such as emotional state, sense of smell, blood pressure, and heart rate.

Breathing is generated in a brain region called Pre-Bötzinger complex (preBötC), which is composed of many subgroups of neurons that are breathing and non-breathing related.

Up to now, due to technical limitations, it was almost impossible to specifically silence a subgroup of neurons that control a non-breathing function without adversely affecting breathing.

Dr Stuart McDougall
Dr Stuart McDougall

In a new study, on pre-clinical models, published in eLife , researchers at The Florey and the University of Melbourne have developed a new methodology to overcome this issue and have now shown that a subgroup of neurons in the preBötC control the nasofacial muscles.

This was the first step to enable the understanding of how breathing is coordinated with or regulates non-breathing functions.

Co-authors Dr Stuart McDougall from The Florey and Dr Mariana Melo from the University of Melbourne said:

“Our research sets a technical foundation for exploring the influence of specific subgroups of preBötC neurons on non-breathing function.”

“Our next step will be to understand the influence of the preBötC on respiratory modulation of other linked physiological functions. For example, we aim to manipulate blood pressure, without altering the control of breathing, to affect the development of high blood pressure.

“More broadly, most brain regions contain complex, functionally heterogeneous groups of neurons, and we validate another method that could be applied to specifically examining subgroups of neurons.”

“As breathing also modulates other functions such as emotional state, blood pressure, and heart rate, it might be feasible to hijack respiratory modulation of these functions, such as blood pressure and heart rate in hypertension and heart failure into the future.”