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State-dependent and reflex drives to the upper airway: basic physiology with clinical implications.


The root cause of the most common and serious of the sleep disorders is impairment of breathing, and a number of factors predispose a particular individual to hypoventilation during sleep. In turn, obstructive hypopneas and apneas are the most common of the sleep-related respiratory problems and are caused by dysfunction of the upper airway as a conduit for airflow. The overarching principle that underpins the full spectrum of clinical sleep-related breathing disorders is that the sleeping brain modifies respiratory muscle activity and control mechanisms and diminishes the ability to respond to respiratory distress. Depression of upper airway muscle activity and reflex responses, and suppression of arousal (i.e., "waking-up") responses to respiratory disturbance, can also occur with commonly used sedating agents (e.g., hypnotics and anesthetics). Growing evidence indicates that the sometimes critical problems of sleep and sedation-induced depression of breathing and arousal responses may be working through common brain pathways acting on common cellular mechanisms. To identify these state-dependent pathways and reflex mechanisms, as they affect the upper airway, is the focus of this paper. Major emphasis is on the synthesis of established and recent findings. In particular, we specifically focus on 1) the recently defined mechanism of genioglossus muscle inhibition in rapid-eye-movement sleep; 2) convergence of diverse neurotransmitters and signaling pathways onto one root mechanism that may explain pharyngeal motor suppression in sleep and drug-induced brain sedation; 3) the lateral reticular formation as a key hub of respiratory and reflex drives to the upper airway.

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