Regional brain stem activations during capsaicin inhalation using functional magnetic resonance imaging in humans

Tara G. Bautista, Jennifer Leech, Stuart B. Mazzone, Michael J. Farrell

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7 Citations (Scopus)


Coughing is an airway protective behavior elicited by airway irritation. Animal studies show that airway sensory information is relayed via vagal sensory fibers to termination sites within dorsal caudal brain stem and thereafter relayed to more rostral sites. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in humans, we previously reported that inhalation of the tussigenic stimulus capsaicin evokes a perception of airway irritation ("urge to cough") accompanied by activations in a widely distributed brain network including the primary sensorimotor, insular, prefrontal, and posterior parietal cortices. Here we refine our imaging approach to provide a directed survey of brain stem areas activated by airway irritation. In 15 healthy participants, inhalation of capsaicin at a maximal dose that elicits a strong urge to cough without behavioral coughing was associated with activation of medullary regions overlapping with the nucleus of the solitary tract, paratrigeminal nucleus, spinal trigeminal nucleus and tract, cardiorespiratory regulatory areas homologous to the ventrolateral medulla in animals, and the midline raphe. Interestingly, the magnitude of activation within two cardiorespiratory regulatory areas was positively correlated ( r2 = 0.47, 0.48) with participants' subjective ratings of their urge to cough. Capsaicin-related activations were also observed within the pons and midbrain. The current results add to knowledge of the representation and processing of information regarding airway irritation in the human brain, which is pertinent to the pursuit of novel cough therapies. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Functional brain imaging in humans was optimized for the brain stem. We provide the first detailed description of brain stem sites activated in response to airway irritation. The results are consistent with findings in animal studies and extend our foundational knowledge of brain processing of airway irritation in humans.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1171-1182
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neurophysiology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2019


  • airway irritation
  • brain imaging
  • brain stem
  • cough
  • respiratory sensations

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