Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Researchers identify key player in respiratory memory


By studying the "memory" of the respiratory system, a group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have identified a key player - a protein called BDNF that’s involved in learning - responsible for the body’s ability to keep breathing properly, despite the challenges it may face.

The findings, published Dec. 14 in the online edition of Nature Neuroscience, could provide ideas of new drug targets, which could lead to new treatments for or ways to prevent a number of potentially fatal breathing disorders, including sleep apnea, sudden infant death syndrome and some related to spinal cord injuries, according to the researchers.

Every few seconds, we draw a breath and then release it. If for some reason this routine is interrupted - oxygen levels are low or airways are blocked, for example - our bodies respond accordingly. In the case of oxygen deprivation, the nerve cells in the brain send messages to motor neurons along the spine, which then tell certain muscles involved in breathing to work harder. As a result, a person may take deeper breaths.

If the breathing disruption is experienced regularly, the respiratory system remembers the disruption and most likely will respond more vigorously in the future. Researchers call this change in neural behavior "neuro-plasticity."

In some cases, however, the respiratory system may not remember, says Gordon Mitchell, chair of the comparative biosciences department at UW-Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine and senior author of the recent paper. He notes that some people who have sleep apnea - a disorder where breathing stops repeatedly during sleep - may have inadequate respiratory memories. He adds that individuals with spinal cord injuries in the neck often must rely on ventilators to help them breathe.

"For them, breathing is a bigger problem than never walking again," says Mitchell. "To breathe is to live."

To allow such patients to breathe more easily, Mitchell and others are exploring the mechanisms underlying respiratory memory so as to find ways to enhance it, such as through drugs.

"If we can understand how breathing changes as a result of experience, we can develop techniques to intervene when breathing is compromised," says Tracy Baker-Herman, a postdoctoral fellow at UW-Madison and first author of the paper.

To begin to uncover these mechanisms, the researchers exposed rats to three five-minute intervals of hypoxia, or decreased oxygen. Sixty minutes after exposure, they recorded the respiratory-related activity levels in the phrenic nerve, which controls the diaphragm muscle. If the activity levels increased after exposure, the researchers would know that the respiratory system, specifically this nerve, had developed a memory of low oxygen.

The Wisconsin scientists did, in fact, record this memory: Activity levels after exposure were 80 percent higher than before the intervals started, suggesting that this nerve remembered experiencing periods of low oxygen levels, says Mitchell.

Making this connection, however, was not enough, says Baker-Herman.

The researchers wanted to know what caused this memory. So, they analyzed segments of spinal cord taken from rats after they had been exposed for 60 minutes to either normal or decreased amounts of oxygen.

The researchers looked specifically for changes in the BDNF protein, or brain derived neurotrophic factor, which is known to sustain and even stimulate neuronal function in the brain. The findings show that intermittent periods of decreased oxygen increased concentrations of the BDNF protein in the phrenic nerve by 56 percent.

Through further testing, the researchers learned that BDNF is, in fact, responsible for increasing activity in this nerve, thereby stimulating a respiratory memory. For example, when the researchers blocked BDNF production in rats with a new technique known as RNA interference and then exposed the rats to intervals of decreased oxygen, they observed no increase in nerve activity. But, when they injected the protein directly into the phrenic nerve of rats they found that neuronal activity increased by 125 percent.

Both findings, says Mitchell, point to the integral role BDNF plays in enhancing the respiratory system’s response to disruptions in breathing. "They show causality between BDNF and phrenic long-term facilitation (or memory)," he says, adding, "the role of BDNF in respiratory plasticity was not known at all before now."

With this new information, Mitchell, Baker-Herman and others in their group continue to search for additional players in respiratory memory. "The closer we get to the ultimate cause," says Mitchell, "the better the chance of developing new pharmaceutical therapies."

These therapies would have the potential not only to restore breathing ability to individuals struck with devastating spinal cord injuries, but also to alleviate the effects of sleep apnea - tiredness, learning impairments, high blood pressure, even death - among the 5 percent of the population with this breathing disorder. Mitchell adds, "The promise for treating other disorders where breathing is disrupted, including sudden infant death syndrome and ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease) is not trivial."

But he cautions that the basic science behind these disorders is still being learned and that pharmacological treatments will follow only after that knowledge has been gained.

Additional Contacts: Gordon Mitchell, (608) 263-9826,; Tracy Baker-Herman, (608) 263-5013,

Emily Carlson | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Gene therapy shows promise for treating Niemann-Pick disease type C1
27.10.2016 | NIH/National Human Genome Research Institute

nachricht 'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape
27.10.2016 | International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA)

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>