Revealing the Role of Single Neurons in Monitoring and Regulating Heart and Lung Functions


The process of homeostasis in the human body, where vital signals are constantly monitored and regulated, is controlled by the brain. Recently, a groundbreaking study conducted by EPFL neuroscientists, in collaboration with researchers from West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has identified single neurons in the human brain that play a crucial role in regulating breathing and cardiac rhythm. This discovery was made possible by utilizing advanced brain recording technology during brain surgery, providing direct evidence of neural connections between vital physiological signals from the heart and lungs and specific brain regions, as published in PNAS.

Emanuela De Falco, the lead author of the study, highlighted the significance of this discovery, stating that while the neural connections between the body’s inner organs and the brain were previously hypothesized based on animal research, this study marks the first direct observation in humans. The research identified specific regions in the brain, including two thalamic nuclei and the subthalamic nucleus, where single neurons encode signals related to cardio-respiratory functions, impacting a significant portion of neurons in these areas.

Co-first author Marco Solca emphasized the importance of pinpointing these neurons, as it provides valuable insights into the mechanism of communication between the body and brain in deep brain regions. Understanding this communication is critical not only for regulating physiological functions but also for influencing cognitive processes such as visual detection, emotional regulation, and decision-making.

The study, conducted over several years, involved recording the activity of single neurons in patients undergoing deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery, a procedure used to treat various medical conditions by stimulating neurons deep inside the brain. By analyzing the neuron activity and simultaneously monitoring electrocardiograms during surgery, the researchers were able to map out the neural responses to cardiac and respiratory signals.

The findings from this study open up new avenues for future research, with De Falco highlighting the potential to investigate the feedback loop mechanism between heart rate and neural activity in subcortical brain regions. The insights gained from these studies could have implications for understanding self-consciousness, movement intentions, and free will.

Ultimately, this study serves as a foundational framework for advancing our understanding of the brain’s role in regulating physiological functions and its relevance to psychiatric conditions. By shedding light on the intricate network of neurons involved in monitoring and regulating heart and lung functions, this research paves the way for further discoveries in neuroscience and mental health research.

1.  Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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