Small airway determinants of airflow limitation in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Thorax. 2021 Nov;76(11):1079-1088. doi: 10.1136/thoraxjnl-2020-216037. Epub 2021 Apr 7.


Background: Although a variety of pathological changes have been described in small airways of patients with COPD, the critical anatomic features determining airflow limitation remain incompletely characterised.

Methods: We examined lung tissue specimens from 18 non-smokers without chronic lung disease and 55 former smokers with COPD for pathological features of small airways that could contribute to airflow limitation. Morphometric evaluation was performed for epithelial and subepithelial tissue thickness, collagen and elastin content, luminal mucus and radial alveolar attachments. Immune/inflammatory cells were enumerated in airway walls. Quantitative emphysema scoring was performed on chest CT scans.

Results: Small airways from patients with COPD showed thickening of epithelial and subepithelial tissue, mucus plugging and reduced collagen density in the airway wall (in severe COPD). In patients with COPD, we also observed a striking loss of alveolar attachments, which are connective tissue septa that insert radially into the small airway adventitia. While each of these parameters correlated with reduced airflow (FEV1), multivariable regression analysis indicated that loss of alveolar attachments was the major determinant of airflow limitation related to small airways. Neutrophilic infiltration of airway walls and collagen degradation in airway adventitia correlated with loss of alveolar attachments. In addition, quantitative analysis of CT scans identified an association between the extent of emphysema and loss of alveolar attachments.

Conclusion: In COPD, loss of radial alveolar attachments in small airways is the pathological feature most closely related to airflow limitation. Destruction of alveolar attachments may be mediated by neutrophilic inflammation.

Keywords: COPD pathology; emphysema.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Lung / diagnostic imaging
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive* / diagnostic imaging
  • Pulmonary Emphysema* / diagnostic imaging
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Respiratory Physiological Phenomena