Anatomy and Physiology of Phrenic Afferent Neurons

J Neurophysiol. 2017 Dec 1;118(6):2975-2990. doi: 10.1152/jn.00484.2017. Epub 2017 Aug 23.


Large-diameter myelinated phrenic afferents discharge in phase with diaphragm contraction, and smaller diameter fibers discharge across the respiratory cycle. In this article, we review the phrenic afferent literature and highlight areas in need of further study. We conclude that 1) activation of both myelinated and nonmyelinated phrenic sensory afferents can influence respiratory motor output on a breath-by-breath basis; 2) the relative impact of phrenic afferents substantially increases with diaphragm work and fatigue; 3) activation of phrenic afferents has a powerful impact on sympathetic motor outflow, and 4) phrenic afferents contribute to diaphragm somatosensation and the conscious perception of breathing. Much remains to be learned regarding the spinal and supraspinal distribution and synaptic contacts of myelinated and nonmyelinated phrenic afferents. Similarly, very little is known regarding the potential role of phrenic afferent neurons in triggering or modulating expression of respiratory neuroplasticity.

Keywords: afferent; diaphragm; phrenic; receptor; sensory.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Diaphragm / innervation
  • Diaphragm / physiology
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology*
  • Nociception
  • Phrenic Nerve / cytology
  • Phrenic Nerve / physiology*
  • Respiration