Reflex regulation of airway smooth muscle tone

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

166 Scopus citations


Autonomic nerves in most mammalian species mediate both contractions and relaxations of airway smooth muscle. Cholinergic-parasympathetic nerves mediate contractions, whereas adrenergic-sympathetic and/or noncholinergic parasympathetic nerves mediate relaxations. Sympathetic-adrenergic innervation of human airway smooth muscle is sparse or nonexistent based on histological analyses and plays little or no role in regulating airway caliber. Rather, in humans and in many other species, postganglionic noncholinergic parasympathetic nerves provide the only relaxant innervation of airway smooth muscle. These noncholinergic nerves are anatomically and physiologically distinct from the postganglionic cholinergic parasympathetic nerves and differentially regulated by reflexes. Although bronchopulmonary vagal afferent nerves provide the primary afferent input regulating airway autonomic nerve activity, extrapulmonary afferent nerves, both vagal and nonvagal, can also reflexively regulate autonomic tone in airway smooth muscle. Reflexes result in either an enhanced activity in one or more of the autonomic efferent pathways, or a withdrawal of baseline cholinergic tone. These parallel excitatory and inhibitory afferent and efferent pathways add complexity to autonomic control of airway caliber. Dysfunction or dysregulation of these afferent and efferent nerves likely contributes to the pathogenesis of obstructive airways diseases and may account for the pulmonary symptoms associated with extrapulmonary disorders, including gastroesophageal reflux disease, cardiovascular disease, and rhinosinusitis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)971-985
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of applied physiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2006


  • Autonomic
  • Parasympathetic
  • Sympathetic
  • Vagal

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Physiology (medical)


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