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Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2009 May;296(5):R1473-95. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.91008.2008. Epub 2009 Feb 11.

Integration of cerebrovascular CO2 reactivity and chemoreflex control of breathing: mechanisms of regulation, measurement, and interpretation.

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  • 1Department of Physiology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.


Cerebral blood flow (CBF) and its distribution are highly sensitive to changes in the partial pressure of arterial CO(2) (Pa(CO(2))). This physiological response, termed cerebrovascular CO(2) reactivity, is a vital homeostatic function that helps regulate and maintain central pH and, therefore, affects the respiratory central chemoreceptor stimulus. CBF increases with hypercapnia to wash out CO(2) from brain tissue, thereby attenuating the rise in central Pco(2), whereas hypocapnia causes cerebral vasoconstriction, which reduces CBF and attenuates the fall of brain tissue Pco(2). Cerebrovascular reactivity and ventilatory response to Pa(CO(2)) are therefore tightly linked, so that the regulation of CBF has an important role in stabilizing breathing during fluctuating levels of chemical stimuli. Indeed, recent reports indicate that cerebrovascular responsiveness to CO(2), primarily via its effects at the level of the central chemoreceptors, is an important determinant of eupneic and hypercapnic ventilatory responsiveness in otherwise healthy humans during wakefulness, sleep, and exercise and at high altitude. In particular, reductions in cerebrovascular responsiveness to CO(2) that provoke an increase in the gain of the chemoreflex control of breathing may underpin breathing instability during central sleep apnea in patients with congestive heart failure and on ascent to high altitude. In this review, we summarize the major factors that regulate CBF to emphasize the integrated mechanisms, in addition to Pa(CO(2)), that control CBF. We discuss in detail the assessment and interpretation of cerebrovascular reactivity to CO(2). Next, we provide a detailed update on the integration of the role of cerebrovascular CO(2) reactivity and CBF in regulation of chemoreflex control of breathing in health and disease. Finally, we describe the use of a newly developed steady-state modeling approach to examine the effects of changes in CBF on the chemoreflex control of breathing and suggest avenues for future research.

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