Vagal Afferent Innervation of the Airways in Health and Disease

Physiol Rev. 2016 Jul;96(3):975-1024. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00039.2015.


Vagal sensory neurons constitute the major afferent supply to the airways and lungs. Subsets of afferents are defined by their embryological origin, molecular profile, neurochemistry, functionality, and anatomical organization, and collectively these nerves are essential for the regulation of respiratory physiology and pulmonary defense through local responses and centrally mediated neural pathways. Mechanical and chemical activation of airway afferents depends on a myriad of ionic and receptor-mediated signaling, much of which has yet to be fully explored. Alterations in the sensitivity and neurochemical phenotype of vagal afferent nerves and/or the neural pathways that they innervate occur in a wide variety of pulmonary diseases, and as such, understanding the mechanisms of vagal sensory function and dysfunction may reveal novel therapeutic targets. In this comprehensive review we discuss historical and state-of-the-art concepts in airway sensory neurobiology and explore mechanisms underlying how vagal sensory pathways become dysfunctional in pathological conditions.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Respiration Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Respiratory System / innervation*
  • Respiratory System / physiopathology
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / physiology*
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology*