Australian researchers have discovered a crucial “missing link” between the parts of the brain that control breathing and those that control the cardiovascular system, publishing the breakthrough on Tuesday.
Scientists from Macquarie University along with colleagues from the University of New South Wales identified a busy group of brain cells tasked with synchronising the cardiovascular system and throat muscles with breathing.
“This answers a question that has baffled researchers since the 1930s,” Associate Professor Simon McMullan from Macquarie University Department of Biomedical Sciences said.
“Our experiments show that neurons within a region less than one mm in diameter play a key role in communicating breathing activity to two major physiological systems; the muscles that keep the airway clear and the circulatory system.”
McMullan and his team believe that the connection helps improve the efficiency of the respiratory and circulatory systems by enhancing gas exchange in the lungs — a mechanism which is thought to fail in the case of a number of common ailments including high blood pressure (hypertension) and kidney disease.
In addition, the results suggested that the same cell group may play a pivotal role in controlling swallowing as well, meaning that a single cell group co-ordinates multiple functions that are fundamental for life support.
“The involvement of this cell group in coordinating both breathing and swallowing patterns to the same outputs is really significant – it suggests that these multi-tasking neurons play a dynamic role in selecting which pattern of activity is in the best interests of the individual in real time,” Professor Jacqueline Phillips, from Macquarie University Department of Biomedical Sciences, who co-led the study, said.
The authors are hopeful that the results will lead to improved treatments for drug-resistant hypertension, a major driver of cardiovascular morbidity and death worldwide.