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Something in the air (environment and respiration)

October 28, 2011

My previous post discussed the importance of understanding the dynamical interaction between three components: brain, body, and environment. There I considered the lamprey model, but my own research deals with the respiratory control system which has its own interesting brain-body-environment dynamic. The central component of respiration involves the generation of a continuous rhythm of breathing, but this rhythm obviously is modulated by many factors, not the least of which is what is in the air that you breathe. Your body contains chemoreceptors that can detect changes in blood chemistry and modulates the respiratory rhythm to react.

Key properties that are monitored include levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and pH. Keep in mind that chemoreceptors do not monitor the air in your lungs. They monitor gases in your blood supply. So the circulatory system is the immediate environment, the chemoreceptors are the part of the body that translates an environmental effect to the nervous system, and the nervous system can respond to environmental changes. The repertoire of responses includes breathing faster, slower, or deeper.

I will surely delve into the nervous system component in later posts. Here I mainly want to point out how complex the situation is for such a lower-order function of the nervous system. Not only is there a complex process of chemoreception, but the respiratory rhythm is affected by other environment-body influences such as stretch receptors in the lungs and proprioceptive feedback from respiratory muscles. This helps to explain the difficulties in explaining and modeling even seemingly “simple” components of the nervous system. Even if the core central pattern generator for respiration were simple (a sensitive topic in itself for some of us), the dynamics become noticeably complex when this system is embedded within the body which is further embedded in an environment. OK, let’s all take breath.

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