The highly pathogenic H5N1 (HK483) viral infection causes a depressed hypercapnic ventilatory response (dHCVR, 20%↓) at 2 days postinfection (dpi) and death at 7 dpi in mice, but the relevant mechanisms are not fully understood. Glomus cells in the carotid body and catecholaminergic neurons in locus coeruleus (LC), neurokinin 1 receptor (NK1R)-expressing neurons in the retrotrapezoid nucleus (RTN), and serotonergic neurons in the raphe are chemosensitive and responsible for HCVR. We asked whether the dHCVR became worse over the infection period with viral replication in these cells/neurons. Mice intranasally inoculated with saline or the HK483 virus were exposed to hypercapnia for 5 min at 0, 2, 4, or 6 dpi, followed by immunohistochemistry to determine the expression of nucleoprotein of H5N1 influenza A (NP) alone and coupled with 1) tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) in the carotid body and LC, 2) NK1R in the RTN, and 3) tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH) in the raphe. HK483 viral infection blunted HCVR by ∼20, 50, and 65% at 2, 4, and 6 dpi. The NP was observed in the pontomedullary respiratory-related nuclei (but not in the carotid body) at 4 and 6 dpi, especially in 20% of RTN NK1R, 35% of LC TH, and ∼10% raphe TPH neurons. The infection significantly reduced the local NK1R or TPH immunoreactivity and population of neurons expressing NK1R or TPH. We conclude that the HK483 virus infects the pontomedullary respiratory nuclei, particularly chemosensitive neurons in the RTN, LC, and raphe, contributing to the severe depression of HCVR and respiratory failure at 6 dpi. NEW & NOTEWORTHY The H5N1 virus infection is lethal due to respiratory failure, but the relevant mechanisms remain unclear. In this study, we demonstrated a gradual diminution of hypercapnic ventilatory response to a degree, leading to respiratory failure over a 6-day infection. Death was associated with viral replication in the pontomedullary respiratory-related nuclei, especially the central chemosensitive neurons. These results not only provide insight into the mechanisms of the lethality of H5N1 viral infection but also offer clues in the development of corresponding treatments to minimize and prevent respiratory failure.
Keywords: CO chemoreflex; respiratory failure; viral infection.