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Neuronal Control of Breathing: Sex and Stress Hormones

  1. Mary Behan1,
  2. Richard Kinkead2

Published Online: 1 OCT 2011

DOI: 10.1002/cphy.c100027

Comprehensive Physiology

Comprehensive Physiology

How to Cite

Behan, M. and Kinkead, R. 2011. Neuronal Control of Breathing: Sex and Stress Hormones. Comprehensive Physiology. 1:2101–2139.

Author Information

  1. 1

    Department of Comparative Biosciences, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin

  2. 2

    Department of Pediatrics, Université Laval, Quebec, Canada

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 OCT 2011


There is a growing public awareness that hormones can have a significant impact on most biological systems, including the control of breathing. This review will focus on the actions of two broad classes of hormones on the neuronal control of breathing: sex hormones and stress hormones. The majority of these hormones are steroids; a striking feature is that both groups are derived from cholesterol. Stress hormones also include many peptides which are produced primarily within the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus (PVN) and secreted into the brain or into the circulatory system. In this article we will first review and discuss the role of sex hormones in respiratory control throughout life, emphasizing how natural fluctuations in hormones are reflected in ventilatory metrics and how disruption of their endogenous cycle can predispose to respiratory disease. These effects may be mediated directly by sex hormone receptors or indirectly by neurotransmitter systems. Next, we will discuss the origins of hypothalamic stress hormones and their relationship with the respiratory control system. This relationship is 2-fold: (i) via direct anatomical connections to brainstem respiratory control centers, and (ii) via steroid hormones released from the adrenal gland in response to signals from the pituitary gland. Finally, the impact of stress on the development of neural circuits involved in breathing is evaluated in animal models, and the consequences of early stress on respiratory health and disease is discussed. © 2011 American Physiological Society. Compr Physiol 1:2101-2139, 2011.