Sensory detection and responses to toxic gases: mechanisms, health effects, and countermeasures

Proc Am Thorac Soc. 2010 Jul;7(4):269-77. doi: 10.1513/pats.201001-004SM.


The inhalation of reactive gases and vapors can lead to severe damage of the airways and lung, compromising the function of the respiratory system. Exposures to oxidizing, electrophilic, acidic, or basic gases frequently occur in occupational and ambient environments. Corrosive gases and vapors such as chlorine, phosgene, and chloropicrin were used as warfare agents and in terrorist acts. Chemical airway exposures are detected by the olfactory, gustatory, and nociceptive sensory systems that initiate protective physiological and behavioral responses. This review focuses on the role of airway nociceptive sensory neurons in chemical sensing and discusses the recent discovery of neuronal receptors for reactive chemicals. Using physiological, imaging, and genetic approaches, Transient Receptor Potential (TRP) ion channels in sensory neurons were shown to respond to a wide range of noxious chemical stimuli, initiating pain, respiratory depression, cough, glandular secretions, and other protective responses. TRPA1, a TRP ion channel expressed in chemosensory C-fibers, is activated by almost all oxidizing and electrophilic chemicals, including chlorine, acrolein, tear gas agents, and methyl isocyanate, the highly noxious chemical released in the Bhopal disaster. Chemicals likely activate TRPA1 through covalent protein modification. Animal studies using TRPA1 antagonists or TRPA1-deficient mice confirmed the role of TRPA1 in chemically induced respiratory reflexes, pain, and inflammation in vivo. New research shows that sensory neurons are not merely passive sensors of chemical exposures. Sensory channels such as TRPA1 are essential for maintenance of airway inflammation in asthma and may contribute to the progression of airway injury following high-level chemical exposures.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acids / toxicity
  • Animals
  • Chemical Warfare Agents / toxicity
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / physiology
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Gases / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Inhalation Exposure
  • Irritants / toxicity*
  • Mice
  • Nociceptors / physiology
  • Occupational Exposure
  • Respiratory System / drug effects*
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / physiology*
  • Transient Receptor Potential Channels / physiology*


  • Acids
  • Chemical Warfare Agents
  • Gases
  • Irritants
  • Transient Receptor Potential Channels