The progressive decline of lung function with aging is associated with changes in lung structure at all levels, from conducting airways to acinar airways (alveolar ducts and sacs). While information on conducting airways is becoming available from computed tomography, in vivo information on the acinar airways is not conventionally available, even though acini occupy 95% of lung volume and serve as major gas exchange units of the lung. The objectives of this study are to measure morphometric parameters of lung acinar airways in living adult humans over a broad range of ages by using an innovative MRI-based technique, in vivo lung morphometry with hyperpolarized (3)He gas, and to determine the influence of age-related differences in acinar airway morphometry on lung function. Pulmonary function tests and MRI with hyperpolarized (3)He gas were performed on 24 healthy nonsmokers aged 19-71 years. The most significant age-related difference across this population was a 27% loss of alveolar depth, h, leading to a 46% increased acinar airway lumen radius, hence, decreased resistance to acinar air transport. Importantly, the data show a negative correlation between h and the pulmonary function measures forced expiratory volume in 1 s and forced vital capacity. In vivo lung morphometry provides unique information on age-related changes in lung microstructure and their influence on lung function. We hypothesize that the observed reduction of alveolar depth in subjects with advanced aging represents a remodeling process that might be a compensatory mechanism, without which the pulmonary functional decline due to other biological factors with advancing age would be significantly larger.
Keywords: MRI; airway remodeling; alveolar ducts and sacs; hyperpolarized gas; in vivo lung morphometry.
Copyright © 2016 the American Physiological Society.