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The Cellular Building Blocks of Breathing

  1. J.M. Ramirez1,2,
  2. A. Doi1,2,
  3. A.J. Garcia III1,2,
  4. F.P. Elsen1,2,
  5. H. Koch1,2,
  6. A.D. Wei1,2

Published Online: 1 OCT 2012

DOI: 10.1002/cphy.c110033

Comprehensive Physiology

Comprehensive Physiology

How to Cite

Ramirez, J., Doi, A., Garcia, A., Elsen, F., Koch, H. and Wei, A. 2012. The Cellular Building Blocks of Breathing. Comprehensive Physiology. 2:2683–2731.

Author Information

  1. 1

    Center for Integrative Brain Research, Seattle Children's Research Institut, Seattle, Washington

  2. 2

    Department of Neurological Surgery, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, Washington

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 OCT 2012


Respiratory brainstem neurons fulfill critical roles in controlling breathing: they generate the activity patterns for breathing and contribute to various sensory responses including changes in O2 and CO2. These complex sensorimotor tasks depend on the dynamic interplay between numerous cellular building blocks that consist of voltage-, calcium-, and ATP-dependent ionic conductances, various ionotropic and metabotropic synaptic mechanisms, as well as neuromodulators acting on G-protein coupled receptors and second messenger systems. As described in this review, the sensorimotor responses of the respiratory network emerge through the state-dependent integration of all these building blocks. There is no known respiratory function that involves only a small number of intrinsic, synaptic, or modulatory properties. Because of the complex integration of numerous intrinsic, synaptic, and modulatory mechanisms, the respiratory network is capable of continuously adapting to changes in the external and internal environment, which makes breathing one of the most integrated behaviors. Not surprisingly, inspiration is critical not only in the control of ventilation, but also in the context of “inspiring behaviors” such as arousal of the mind and even creativity. Far-reaching implications apply also to the underlying network mechanisms, as lessons learned from the respiratory network apply to network functions in general. © 2012 American Physiological Society. Compr Physiol 2:2683-2731, 2012.