Learning To Breathe After Early Life Sickness

Breathing is essential to life. At birth, the brain quickly adapts and learns to control breathing in different situations. This adaptability is called neuroplasticity.

Most breathing-related adjustments in the brain are short-term, like breathing faster during exercise. The brain can also learn from prior experience to prepare for future situations.

For example, intermittent exposure to low oxygen causes long-term changes in signals from the brain to muscles controlling breathing, which may help them prepare for future low oxygen situations. This is called long-term facilitation (LTF). This neuroplasticity may also help the brain to compensate or stabilize breathing during an illness or injury.

Neonatal Inflammation

Illnesses shortly after birth can affect how the brain controls breathing and may contribute to respiratory diseases later in life. They may also have lasting effects on the ability to of the brain to learn and respond to stress, and may even contribute to psychiatric disorders or age-related cognitive decline.

The University of Oregon’s Austin D Hocker and colleagues now report that inflammation shortly after birth has effects on breathing control that extend into adulthood. In the experiments, rats were injected four days after birth with either saline solution or a drug causing inflammation.

mouse lungs loaded with a drug carrying microparticles
Confocal micrograph of mouse lungs loaded with a drug carrying microparticles (pink).
Credit: Gregory Szeto, Adelaide Tovar, Jeffrey Wyckoff, Koch Institute, MIT (CC BY-NC-ND)

When the rats grew into adults, their ability to make long-term breathing adjustments, or LTF, was assessed. In the rats exposed to early life inflammation two important pathways that enable LTF were eliminated.

Anti-inflammatory Treatment

One pathway was restored when the rats received an anti-inflammatory treatment. Activating nerve cells reinstated the other pathway, suggesting these cells are not impaired.

The experiments suggest inflammation during early life impairs breathing control later on and may contribute to adult respiratory disease. Inflammation is common among infants in their first year, particularly among those born prematurely.

This early-life inflammation may put them at risk of diseases associated with breathing control, like sleep apnea, later in life. More studies are needed to understand the relationship between early life inflammation, respiratory control, and respiratory disease later in life.

Austin D Hocker, Sarah A Beyeler, Alyssa N Gardner, Stephen M Johnson, Jyoti J Watters, Adrianne G HuxtableAustin D Hocker, Sarah A Beyeler, Alyssa N Gardner, Stephen M Johnson, Jyoti J Watters, Adrianne G Huxtable
One bout of neonatal inflammation impairs adult respiratory motor plasticity in male and female rats
eLife 2019;8:e45399 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.45399

© 2019 eLife Sciences Publications Ltd. Republished via Creative Commons Attribution license. Top Image: Austin D Hocker et al. CC-BY