Respiratory sinus arrhythmia: endogenous activation of nicotinic receptors mediates respiratory modulation of brainstem cardioinhibitory parasympathetic neurons

Circ Res. 2003 Sep 19;93(6):565-72. doi: 10.1161/01.RES.0000090361.45027.5B. Epub 2003 Aug 7.


The heart rate increases during inspiration and decreases during expiration. This respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) occurs by modulation of premotor cardioinhibitory parasympathetic neuron (CPN) activity. However, RSA has not been fully characterized in rats, and despite the critical role of CPNs in the generation of RSA, little is known about the mechanisms that mediate this cardiorespiratory interaction. This study demonstrates that RSA in conscious rats is similar to that in other species. The mechanism of RSA was then examined in vitro. Rhythmic inspiratory-related activity was recorded from the hypoglossal rootlet of 700- to 800-microm medullary sections. CPNs were identified by retrograde fluorescent labeling, and neurotransmission to CPNs was examined using patch-clamp electrophysiological techniques. During inspiratory bursts, the frequency of both spontaneous gamma-aminobutyric acidergic (GABAergic) and spontaneous glycinergic synaptic events in CPNs was significantly increased. Focal application of the nicotinic antagonist dihydro-beta-erythroidine in an alpha4beta2-selective concentration (3 micromol/L) abolished the respiratory-evoked increase in GABAergic frequency. In contrast, the increase in glycinergic frequency during inspiration was not altered by nicotinic antagonists. Prenatal nicotine exposure exaggerated the increase in GABAergic frequency during inspiration and enhanced GABAergic synaptic amplitude both between and during inspiratory events. Glycinergic synaptic frequency and amplitude were unchanged by prenatal nicotine exposure. This study establishes a neurochemical link between neurons essential for respiration and CPNs, reveals a functional role for endogenous acetylcholine release and the activation of nicotinic receptors in the generation of RSA, and demonstrates that this cardiorespiratory interaction is exaggerated in rats prenatally exposed to nicotine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arrhythmias, Cardiac / etiology
  • Brain Stem / cytology
  • Brain Stem / physiology*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Embryo, Mammalian / drug effects
  • Embryo, Mammalian / physiology
  • Female
  • Glycine / metabolism
  • Heart / innervation*
  • Heart Rate*
  • Neural Inhibition
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Nicotine / pharmacology
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / cytology
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / embryology
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Patch-Clamp Techniques
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / classification
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / metabolism
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / physiology*
  • Respiration*
  • Species Specificity
  • Synaptic Transmission
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism


  • Receptors, Nicotinic
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid
  • Nicotine
  • Glycine