News Release

Locating single neurons that monitor and regulate the heart and lungs

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

The body self-regulates in a process known as homeostasis, and the brain is responsible for this
as it is constantly monitoring all of the body’s vital signals. If you need more oxygen, for
example, then a message is sent to the brain that then tells the body to adjust your breathing
and your heart rate. But the neurons involved in regulating breathing and cardiac rhythm had
never been directly observed, until now, thanks to brain recording technology during brain
EPFL neuroscientists, in a collaboration with surgeons and neuroscientists at West Virginia
University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill, show that single neurons deep in the human brain, in two thalamic nuclei and the
subthalamic nucleus, encode vital physiological signals from the heart and lungs, providing the
first direct evidence of this in humans. The results are published in PNAS.
“Neural connections between the body’s inner organs and the brain had been hypothesized
based on rare animal research and existing anatomical work,” explains first author Emanuela De
Falco of EPFL’s Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience, led by Olaf Blanke. “We found that
cardio-respiratory signals affect a large portion of neurons.”
Marco Solca, co-first author of the study continues, “Locating these neurons is relevant since it
sheds light on how this body-brain communication happens in the deep brain.”
Communication between the body and brain is also known to be relevant for several important
cognitive and affective processes as it influences, for example, visual detection, emotional
regulation and decision-making. Dysfunction of the body-brain communication is recognized as
an important feature of various mental health conditions, including anxiety, mood, eating, and
psychosomatic disorders.
A unique opportunity with deep brain stimulation
The study was carried out over several years, thanks to a collaboration with Dr. Ali Rezai,
neurosurgeon and director of the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute,
by recording the activity of single neurons in patients undergoing surgery for deep-brain
stimulation (DBS) to treat various medical conditions.
DBS consists of stimulating neurons deep inside the brain via an electrode probe. Before
inserting the probe, neurosurgeons sometimes opt to temporarily insert a microelectrode into
the brain and make recordings of brain activity, since it improves where in the brain the DBS

probe is subsequently inserted. As in previous projects, the EPFL scientists saw the potential in
these microelectrode recordings, and seized the opportunity to monitor electrocardiograms
simultaneously, thus obtaining coupled recordings of the neuron activity and different cardiac
and respiratory signals.
“Now we know where these neurons are located, immediate future studies could focus on
understanding the feedback loop mechanism between the heartrate and neural activity in
subcortical areas of the brain and their involvement in self-consciousness and
movement intentions or free will,” says De Falco. “More generally, this study lays the
foundation for several future developments, towards understanding the brain and more
broadly in psychiatric conditions.”

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