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Patient-ventilator synchrony is a major concern in critical care and is influenced by phasic lung-volume feedback control of the respiratory rhythm. Routine clinical application of positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP) introduces a tonic input which, if unopposed, might disrupt respiratory-ventilator entrainment through sustained activation of the vagally-mediated Hering-Breuer reflex. We suggest that this potential adverse effect may be averted by two differentiator forms of nonassociative learning (habituation and desensitization) of the Hering-Breuer reflex via pontomedullary pathways. We tested these hypotheses in 17 urethane-anesthetized adult Sprague-Dawley rats under controlled mechanical ventilation. Without PEEP, phrenic discharge was entrained 1:1 to the ventilator rhythm. Application of PEEP momentarily dampened the entrainment to higher ratios but this effect was gradually adapted by nonassociative learning. Bilateral electrolytic lesions of the pneumotaxic center weakened the adaptation to PEEP, whereas sustained stimulation of the pneumotaxic center weakened the entrainment independent of PEEP. In all cases, entrainment was abolished after vagotomy. Our results demonstrate an important functional role for pneumotaxic desensitization and extra-pontine habituation of the Hering-Breuer reflex elicited by lung inflation: acting as buffers or high-pass filters against tonic vagal volume input, these differentiator forms of nonassociative learning help to restore respiratory-ventilator entrainment in the face of PEEP. Such central sites-specific habituation and desensitization of the Hering-Breuer reflex provide a useful experimental model of nonassociative learning in mammals that is of particular significance in understanding respiratory rhythmogenesis and coupled-oscillator entrainment mechanisms, and in the clinical management of mechanical ventilation in respiratory failure.


Shawna M MacDonald, Gang Song, Chi-Sang Poon. Nonassociative learning promotes respiratory entrainment to mechanical ventilation. PloS one. 2007;2(9):e865

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PMID: 17848996

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