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Chest. 2013 May;143(5):1436-43. doi: 10.1378/chest.12-1766.

Small airway obstruction in COPD: new insights based on micro-CT imaging and MRI imaging.

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  • 1James Hogg Research Centre, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada.


The increase in total cross-sectional area in the distal airways of the human lung enhances the mixing of each tidal breath with end-expiratory gas volume by slowing bulk flow and increasing gas diffusion. However, this transition also favors the deposition of airborne particulates in this region because they diffuse 600 times slower than gases. Furthermore, the persistent deposition of toxic airborne particulates stimulates a chronic inflammatory immune cell infiltration and tissue repair and remodeling process that increases the resistance in airways <2 mm in diameter four to 40-fold in COPD. This increase was originally attributed to lumen narrowing because it increases resistance in proportion to the change in lumen radius raised to the fourth power. In contrast, removal of one-half the number of tubes arranged in parallel is required to double their resistance, and approximately 90% need to be removed to explain the increase in resistance measured in COPD. However, recent reexamination of this problem based on micro-CT imaging indicates that terminal bronchioles are both narrowed and reduced to 10% of the control values in the centrilobular and 25% in the panlobular emphysematous phenotype of very severe (GOLD [Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease] grade IV) COPD. These new data indicate that both narrowing and reduction in numbers of terminal bronchioles contribute to the rapid decline in FEV₁ that leads to severe airway obstruction in COPD. Moreover, the observation that terminal bronchiolar loss precedes the onset of emphysematous destruction suggests this destruction begins in the very early stages of COPD.

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