Journal of Applied Physiology

Invited Review: Neuroplasticity in respiratory motor control

Gordon S. Mitchell, Stephen M. Johnson


Although recent evidence demonstrates considerable neuroplasticity in the respiratory control system, a comprehensive conceptual framework is lacking. Our goals in this review are to define plasticity (and related neural properties) as it pertains to respiratory control and to discuss potential sites, mechanisms, and known categories of respiratory plasticity. Respiratory plasticity is defined as a persistent change in the neural control system based on prior experience. Plasticity may involve structural and/or functional alterations (most commonly both) and can arise from multiple cellular/synaptic mechanisms at different sites in the respiratory control system. Respiratory neuroplasticity is critically dependent on the establishment of necessary preconditions, the stimulus paradigm, the balance between opposing modulatory systems, age, gender, and genetics. Respiratory plasticity can be induced by hypoxia, hypercapnia, exercise, injury, stress, and pharmacological interventions or conditioning and occurs during development as well as in adults. Developmental plasticity is induced by experiences (e.g., altered respiratory gases) during sensitive developmental periods, thereby altering mature respiratory control. The same experience later in life has little or no effect. In adults, neuromodulation plays a prominent role in several forms of respiratory plasticity. For example, serotonergic modulation is thought to initiate and/or maintain respiratory plasticity following intermittent hypoxia, repeated hypercapnic exercise, spinal sensory denervation, spinal cord injury, and at least some conditioned reflexes. Considerable work is necessary before we fully appreciate the biological significance of respiratory plasticity, its underlying cellular/molecular and network mechanisms, and the potential to harness respiratory plasticity as a therapeutic tool.

  • respiratory control
  • neuromodulation
  • plasticity
  • serotonin
  • development


  • This work was supported by National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Grants HL-65383, HL-69064, and HL-53319.

  • Address for reprint requests and other correspondence: G. S. Mitchell, Dept. of Comparative Biosciences, Univ. of Wisconsin, 2015 Linden Dr., Madison, WI 53706 (E-mail:mitchell{at}

  • 10.1152/japplphysiol.00523.2002

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