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This study combined functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging techniques, optimized for the human brainstem, to investigate activity in brainstem respiratory control centres in a group of 12 healthy human volunteers. We stimulated respiration with carbon dioxide (CO(2)), and utilized novel methodology to separate its vascular from its neuronal effects upon the blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signal. In the brainstem we observed activity in the dorsal rostral pons (representing the Kölliker-Fuse/parabrachial (KF/PB) nuclei and locus coeruleus), the inferior ventral pons and the dorsal and lateral medulla. These areas of activation correspond to respiratory nuclei identified in recent rodent studies. Our results also reveal functional participation of the anteroventral (AV), ventral posterolateral (VPL) ventrolateral thalamic nuclei, and the posterior putamen in the response to CO(2) stimulation, suggesting that these centres may play a role in gating respiratory information to the cortex. As the functional imaging plane was limited to the brainstem and adjacent subcortical areas, we employed diffusion tractography to further investigate cortical connectivity of the thalamic activations. This revealed distinct connectivity profiles of these thalamic activations suggesting subdivision of the thalamus with regards to respiratory control. From these results we speculate that the thalamus plays an important role in integrating respiratory signals to and from the brainstem respiratory centres.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





295 - 305


Adult, Brain Stem, Carbon Dioxide, Feedback, Female, Humans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Male, Neural Pathways, Oxygen Consumption, Respiratory Mechanics, Thalamus