Breathing is regulated by a central neural oscillator that produces rhythmic output to the respiratory muscles. Pathological disturbances in rhythm (dysrhythmias) are observed in the breathing pattern of children and adults with neurological and cardiopulmonary diseases. The mechanisms responsible for genesis of respiratory dysrhythmias are poorly understood. The present studies take a novel approach to this problem. The basic postulate is that the rhythm of the respiratory oscillator can be altered by a variety of stimuli. When the oscillator recovers its rhythm after such perturbations, its phase may be reset relative to the original rhythm. The amount of phase resetting is dependent upon stimulus parameters and the level of respiratory drive. The long‐range hypothesis is that respiratory dysrhythmias can be induced by stimuli that impinge upon or arise within the respiratory oscillator with certain combinations of strength and timing relative to the respiratory cycle. Animal studies were performed in anesthetized or decerebrate preparations. Neural respiratory rhythmicity is represented by phrenic nerve activity, allowing use of open‐loop experimental conditions which avoid negative chemical feedback associated with changes in ventilation.

In animal experiments, respiratory dysrhythmias can be induced by stimuli having specific combinations of strength and timing. Newborn animals readily exhibit spontaneous dysrhythmias which become more prominent at lower respiratory drives. In human subjects, swallowing was studied as a physiological perturbation of respiratory rhythm, causing a pattern of phase resetting that is characterized topologically as type 0. Computational studies of the Bonhoeffer–van der Pol (BvP) equations, whose qualitative behavior is representative of many excitable systems, supports a unified interpretation of these experimental findings. Rhythmicity is observed when the BvP model exhibits recurrent periods of excitation alternating with refractory periods. The same system can be perturbed to a state in which amplitude of oscillation is attenuated or abolished. We have characterized critical perturbations which induce transitions between these two states, giving rise to patterns of dysrhythmic activity that are similar to those seen in the experiments. We illustrate the importance of noise in initiation and termination of rhythm, comparable to normal respiratory rhythm intermixed with spontaneous dysrhythmias. In the BvP system the incidence and duration of dysrhythmia is shown to be strongly influenced by the level of noise. These studies should lead to greater understanding of rhythmicity and integrative responses of the respiratory control system, and provide insight into disturbances in control mechanisms that cause apnea and aspiration in clinical disease states.

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