SIDS :: Understanding human breathing disorders

CMU researcher Jon Kelty is interested in learning about the electrical connections in the brain that control a gasp and other breathing patterns in hopes of better understanding a host of human breathing disorders, including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Kelty, an assistant professor of biology, now is in the midst of a three-year project to study the electrical reactions that control breathing in the brain stems of neonatal mice. He hopes to learn more about the fundamental mechanisms of respiratory rhythm generation by applying drugs and other chemicals to portions of the brain stem that control breathing and recording the reactions.

Such research may provide direction to research on disorders involving problems with the central control of breathing, including SIDS, a mysterious affliction that typically kills infants in their sleep. Researchers believe some of the deaths occur because infants lack the reflex to gasp in their sleep, or suddenly take in a breath, when their breathing is interrupted. It?s the leading cause of death among infants who are 1 month to 1 year old.

?In a dish we are recording fictive breathing; that is, we?re recording the electrical activity generated by a population of neurons that drive the inspiratory (inhalation) movements of breathing,? Kelty said. ?It?s one of those situations where basic research can be fodder for applied research.?

Kelty?s research begins with razor-thin dissection. He and his assistants remove the infant mouse?s brain and, aided by instruments, shave off a half-millimeter slice of the brain stem.

They then place the sample in a recording chamber and perform a wide variety of experiments by introducing drugs or other chemicals to the solution bathing the tissue. Neuronal activity from the sample ? representing breathing ? is measured by the electrode and shown on a nearby computer monitor.

Among other things, Kelty is studying the characteristics of a normal breath, compared to a gasp, and he?s trying to learn what conditions or chemicals can stimulate that gasp.

Kelty says that even if his research unlocks many secrets, actual cures for SIDS and other breathing disorders would be at least a decade away.

Kelty?s research is funded by a $191,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. He received his doctorate in biology from Miami University of Ohio.

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