When we think about it, we usually remember to breathe when we’re awake. But who’s at the controls when we’re sleeping?
“We’re still continuing to understand the coupling between the neural control in the brain stem and the controlled system, which is the nasal pharynx and oral pharynx and the position of the tongue," said Kingman Strohl, professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at Case Western Reserve University.
He’s interested in how the brain’s breathing control system can go awry, leading to blockages or pauses in our breathing, called apneas, that can wake us up. They keep us from getting good sleep.
“All apneas during sleep all have a reduction in the neural activation of the system,” Strohl said.
Studying how our brain controls our breathing got Strohl and his colleagues thinking about treating apneas electrically, sort of like how we use pacemakers to treat the heart.
“We actually inserted fine wires into the hypoglossal nerve in humans, and found that we could prevent an apnea,” Strohl said. “But we could not break an apnea.”
“So we and others have been trying to activate the, what I kind of think of, as the airway opening circuit in the brain stem and do it during sleep when your major function is breathing.”