Central pathways of pulmonary and lower airway vagal afferents

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2006 Aug;101(2):618-27. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00252.2006. Epub 2006 Apr 27.


Lung sensory receptors with afferent fibers coursing in the vagus nerves are broadly divided into three groups: slowly (SAR) and rapidly (RAR) adapting stretch receptors and bronchopulmonary C fibers. Central terminations of each group are found in largely nonoverlapping regions of the caudal half of the nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS). Second order neurons in the pathways from these receptors innervate neurons located in respiratory-related regions of the medulla, pons, and spinal cord. The relative ease of selective activation of SARs, and to a lesser extent RARs, has allowed for more complete physiological and morphological characterization of the second and higher order neurons in these pathways than for C fibers. A subset of NTS neurons receiving afferent input from SARs (termed pump or P-cells) mediates the Breuer-Hering reflex and inhibits neurons receiving afferent input from RARs. P-cells and second order neurons in the RAR pathway also provide inputs to regions of the ventrolateral medulla involved in control of respiratory motor pattern, i.e., regions containing a predominance of bulbospinal premotor neurons, as well as regions containing respiratory rhythm-generating neurons. Axon collaterals from both P-cells and RAR interneurons, and likely from NTS interneurons in the C-fiber pathway, project to the parabrachial pontine region where they may contribute to plasticity in respiratory control and integration of respiratory control with other systems, including those that provide for voluntary control of breathing, sleep-wake behavior, and emotions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Lung / innervation*
  • Lung / physiology*
  • Medulla Oblongata / physiology
  • Motor Neurons / physiology
  • Nerve Fibers, Unmyelinated / physiology
  • Pulmonary Stretch Receptors / physiology
  • Reflex / physiology
  • Respiration
  • Respiratory Mechanics / physiology
  • Respiratory Physiological Phenomena*
  • Respiratory System / innervation*
  • Sleep / physiology
  • Solitary Nucleus / physiology
  • Spinal Cord / physiology
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology