Quick Project Snapshot
Characterising the degeneration of brainstem neural circuits that control swallowing and breathing
Swallowing disorders that increase the risk of aspiration and subsequent pneumonia are prevalent in the elderly and patients suffering neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Swallowing disorders are often attributed to weakening of the aging upper airway and digestive tract musculature. However, disturbed neural coordination of breathing and swallowing is increasingly evident in such diseases.
Recent research in our laboratory identified three key brainstem areas that are critically involved in the coordination of swallowing and breathing: 1) Nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS), which generates a phasic or rhythmic ‘command’ to produce sequential swallowing in response to sensory stimuli; 2) Nucleus ambiguus (NA), which contains the laryngeal motoneurons innervating the vocal folds; and 3) Kölliker-Fuse nucleus (KF), which provides tonic drive for the laryngeal adductors and completely seals the trachea during, and between, swallows.
This project examines the underlying brainstem pathology linking dementia and swallowing dysfunction in an established mouse model of neurodegeneration. The onset and progression of tauopathy and neurofibrillary tangle-related morphology will be characterised in the brainstem of this mouse model, with particular focus on regions that control swallowing and breathing. This includes the NTS, NA and KF. The project will also identify neurotransmitter systems responsible for the emergence and manifestation of swallowing-breathing disorders.
Techniques include: immunohistochemistry and stereology.
Respiratory Neurophysiology Laboratory
We study the basic neural mechanisms underlying breathing, how these patterns of nerve activity adjust to accommodate other behaviours such as swallowing, and how they are modified during development and in neurodegenerative disease.
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In Systems Neurophysiology we seek to learn how the nervous system controls various bodily functions and how that control is altered in disease. Our disease focus includes not only neurological disorders such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, but also how the nervous system impacts on non-neurological diseases such as heart failure and inflammatory diseases. A clear understanding of basic mechanisms is crucial in developing better therapies and reducing the impacts of illness.