While breathing seems to come easy, it is a complex process in which many muscles coordinate to allow air to flow into the lungs. These muscles also control the flow of air we breathe out to allow us to talk, sing, eat, or drink. The brain circuits that control these muscles, can also influence other parts of the brain.
The preBötzinger Complex, which is a key region of brainstem circuits that generate and control breathing, contains neurons that also project widely, connecting to other regions of the brain. This helps to modulate the sense of smell, emotional state, heart rate, and even blood pressure. Understanding how the preBötzinger Complex is organized can untangle how breathing can influence these other processes.
Melo et al. wanted to learn whether they could manipulate the activity of a subgroup of preBötzinger Complex neurons that project into the facial nucleus – a region of the brain that controls the muscles of the face when we breathe – without affecting breathing. If this can be done, it might also be possible to affect blood pressure by manipulating selective preBötzinger neurons, and thus the development of hypertension, without having any impact on breathing.
To test this hypothesis, Melo et al. used rats in which the activation of preBötzinger Complex neurons that project into the facial nucleus was blocked. This decreased the activity of the muscles around the nose with hardly any effect on breathing. Melo et al. also found that the state of consciousness of the rat (anesthetized or conscious) could affect how preBötzinger Complex neurons control these muscles.
Melo et al. also observed that preBötzinger Complex neurons projecting into the facial nucleus had projections into many other regions in the brainstem. This might help to the coordinate respiratory, cardiovascular, orofacial, and potentially other physiological functions.
The findings of Melo et al. set a technical foundation for exploring the influence of specific subgroups of preBötzinger Complex neurons on respiratory modulation of other physiological activities, including blood pressure and heart rate and in conditions, such as hypertension and heart failure. More broadly, most brain regions contain complex and heterogeneous groups of neurons and the strategy validated by Melo et. al. could be applied to unravel other brain-function relationships.