Breathing is a vital rhythmic behavior that originates from neural networks within the brainstem. It is hypothesized that the breathing rhythm is generated by spatially distinct networks localized to discrete kernels or compartments. Here, we provide evidence that the functional boundaries of these compartments expand and contract dynamically based on behavioral or physiological demands. The ability of these rhythmic networks to change in size may allow the breathing rhythm to be very reliable, yet flexible enough to accommodate the large repertoire of mammalian behaviors that must be integrated with breathing.
The ability of neuronal networks to reconfigure is a key property underlying behavioral flexibility. Networks with recurrent topology are particularly prone to reconfiguration through changes in synaptic and intrinsic properties. Here, we explore spatial reconfiguration in the reticular networks of the medulla that generate breathing. Combined results from in vitro and in vivo approaches demonstrate that the network architecture underlying generation of the inspiratory phase of breathing is not static but can be spatially redistributed by shifts in the balance of excitatory and inhibitory network influences. These shifts in excitation/inhibition allow the size of the active network to expand and contract along a rostrocaudal medullary column during behavioral or metabolic challenges to breathing, such as changes in sensory feedback, sighing, and gasping. We postulate that the ability of this rhythm-generating network to spatially reconfigure contributes to the remarkable robustness and flexibility of breathing.