Plasticity of central chemoreceptors: effect of bilateral carotid body resection on central CO2 sensitivity

PLoS Med. 2007 Jul 24;4(7):e239. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0040239.


Background: Human breathing is regulated by feedback and feed-forward control mechanisms, allowing a strict matching between metabolic needs and the uptake of oxygen in the lungs. The most important control mechanism, the metabolic ventilatory control system, is fine-tuned by two sets of chemoreceptors, the peripheral chemoreceptors in the carotid bodies (located in the bifurcation of the common carotid arteries) and the central CO2 chemoreceptors in the ventral medulla. Animal data indicate that resection of the carotid bodies results, apart from the loss of the peripheral chemoreceptors, in reduced activity of the central CO2 sensors. We assessed the acute and chronic effect of carotid body resection in three humans who underwent bilateral carotid body resection (bCBR) after developing carotid body tumors.

Methods and findings: The three patients (two men, one woman) were suffering from a hereditary form of carotid body tumors. They were studied prior to surgery and at regular intervals for 2-4 y following bCBR. We obtained inspired minute ventilation (Vi) responses to hypoxia and CO2. The Vi-CO2 responses were separated into a peripheral (fast) response and a central (slow) response with a two-compartment model of the ventilatory control system. Following surgery the ventilatory CO2 sensitivity of the peripheral chemoreceptors and the hypoxic responses were not different from zero or below 10% of preoperative values. The ventilatory CO2 sensitivity of the central chemoreceptors decreased by about 75% after surgery, with peak reduction occurring between 3 and 6 mo postoperatively. This was followed by a slow return to values close to preoperative values within 2 y. During this slow return, the Vi-CO2 response shifted slowly to the right by about 8 mm Hg.

Conclusions: The reduction in central Vi-CO2 sensitivity after the loss of the carotid bodies suggests that the carotid bodies exert a tonic drive or tonic facilitation on the output of the central chemoreceptors that is lost upon their resection. The observed return of the central CO2 sensitivity is clear evidence for central plasticity within the ventilatory control system. Our data, although of limited sample size, indicate that the response mechanisms of the ventilatory control system are not static but depend on afferent input and exhibit a large degree of restoration or plasticity. In addition, the permanent absence of the breathing response to hypoxia after bCBR may aggravate the pathological consequences of sleep-disordered breathing.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Carbon Dioxide / chemistry
  • Carbon Dioxide / metabolism*
  • Carotid Body / metabolism
  • Carotid Body / physiopathology*
  • Carotid Body / surgery
  • Carotid Body Tumor / metabolism
  • Carotid Body Tumor / physiopathology*
  • Carotid Body Tumor / surgery
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / physiopathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia
  • Kinetics
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pulmonary Ventilation
  • Time Factors


  • Carbon Dioxide