Respiratory rhythm generation: Plasticity of a neuronal network

Diethelm W. Richter, Sergej L. Mironov, Dietrich Büsselberg, Peter M. Lalley, Anne M. Bischoff, Bernd Wilken

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

25 Citations (Scopus)


The exchange of gases between the external environment and the organism is controlled by a neural network of medullary neurons that produces rhythmic activity that ultimately leads to periodic contractions of thoracic, abdominal, and diaphragm muscles. This occurs in three neural phases: inspiration, postinspiration, and expiration. The present article deals with the mechanisms underlying respiratory rhythm generation and the processes of dynamic adjustment of respiratory activity by neuromodulation as it occurs during normoxia and hypoxia. The respiratory rhythm originates from the 'pre- Botzinger complex,' which is a morphologically defined region within the lower brainstem. There is a primary oscillating network consisting of reciprocally connected early-inspiratory and postinspiratory neurons, whereas various other subgroups of respiratory neurons shape the activity pattern. Rhythm generation and pattern formation result from neuronal interactions within the network, that is, from cooperative adjustments of intrinsic membrane properties and synaptic processes in the respiratory neurons. There is evidence that in neonatal mammals, as well as under certain pathological situations in adult mammals, the respiratory rhythm derives from early- inspiratory burster neurons that drive inspiratory output neurons. The respiratory network is influenced by a variety of neuromodulators. Stimulation of appropriate receptors mostly activates signal pathways that converge on cAMP-dependent protein kinase and protein kinase C. Both pathways exert modulatory effects on voltage- and ligand-controlled ion channels. Many neuromodulators are continuously released within the respiratory region or accumulated under pathological conditions such as hypoxia. The functional significance of such ongoing neuromodulation is seen in variations of network excitability. In this review, the authors concentrate on the modulators serotonin, adenosine, and opioids.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)181-198
Number of pages18
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2000



  • Adenosine
  • Hypoxia
  • Ionotropic and metabotropic transmitter receptors
  • Neuromodulation and intracellular signaling
  • Respiratory rhythm generation
  • Serotonin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Clinical Neurology

Cite this

Richter, D. W., Mironov, S. L., Büsselberg, D., Lalley, P. M., Bischoff, A. M., & Wilken, B. (2000). Respiratory rhythm generation: Plasticity of a neuronal network. Neuroscientist, 6(3), 181-198.