Interactions between volitional and automatic breathing during respiratory apraxia

Respir Physiol Neurobiol. 2006 Jun;152(2):169-75. doi: 10.1016/j.resp.2005.08.004. Epub 2005 Sep 26.


The sites and forms of interactions between voluntary breathing acts and automatic respiratory rhythm generation are the subject of considerable research interest. We report here observations of the control of breathing in a patient suffering from an advanced form of progressive supranuclear palsy (Steele-Richardson-Olszewski syndrome). This patient demonstrated a severely compromised ability to perform volitional respiratory acts upon command, despite exacerbated behavioural and automatic control of respiration. The presence of residual volitional control of breathing in this patient provided interesting insights concerning the interaction between the automatic and the voluntary control of respiration. We observed that (1) when the subjects was asked to inspire voluntarily he could at best mobilize a volume similar to spontaneous VT and only very slowly; (2) automatic breathing movements persisted, superimposed onto the active voluntary movements, with an amplitude that decreased when the inspiratory activity, albeit weak, reached its maximal level; (3) during breath holding both the amplitude and the frequency of the basal spontaneous rhythmic activity were depressed. This observation therefore supports the idea of a strong interaction between volitional and automatic breathing in the form of an inhibition of automatic activity during voluntary breathing. Although, the site of interaction (spinal versus supraspinal) could not be determined during volitional inspiration, the effect of breath holding on the frequency of the spontaneous breathing activity supports the view that a volitional breathing arrest has some inhibitory effects on the respiratory oscillator at the medullary level. Finally, in an attempt to reconcile the persistence of a rhythmic activity during voluntary inspiration and expiration with previous data from the literature, it is proposed that the normal suppression of the automatic activity during voluntary inspiration relies on cortical and sub-cortical structures involved in the planning, i.e. the praxic component, of a respiratory task rather than on projections originating from the primary motor cortex.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Apraxias / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Inhalation / physiology
  • Male
  • Respiration*
  • Respiratory Function Tests / methods
  • Supranuclear Palsy, Progressive / physiopathology*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology*