The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience
Collectively, the retrotrapezoid nucleus (RTN) and adjacent C1 neurons regulate breathing, circulation and the state of vigilance but previous methods to manipulate the activity of these neurons have been insufficiently selective to parse out their relative roles. We hypothesize that RTN and C1 neurons regulate distinct aspects of breathing (e.g. frequency, amplitude, active expiration, sighing) and differ in their ability to produce arousal from sleep. Here we use optogenetics and a combination of viral vectors in adult male and female Th-Cre rats to transduce selectively RTN (Phox2b+/Nmb+) or C1 neurons (Phox2b+/Th+) with ChR2. RTN photostimulation modestly increased the probability of arousal. RTN stimulation robustly increased breathing frequency and amplitude; it also triggered strong active expiration but not sighs. Consistent with these responses, RTN innervates the entire pontomedullary respiratory network including expiratory premotor neurons in the caudal ventral respiratory group (cVRG) but RTN has very limited projections to brainstem regions that regulate arousal (locus coeruleus, CGRP+ parabrachial neurons). C1 neuron stimulation produced robust arousals and similar increases in breathing frequency and amplitude compared to RTN stimulation but sighs were elicited and active expiration was absent. Unlike RTN, C1 neurons innervate the locus coeruleus, CGRP+ processes within the parabrachial complex, and lack projections to cVRG. In sum, stimulating C1 or RTN activates breathing robustly but only RTN neuron stimulation produces active expiration, consistent with their role as central respiratory chemoreceptors. Conversely, C1 stimulation strongly stimulates ascending arousal systems and sighs, consistent with their postulated role in acute stress responses. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: The C1 neurons and the retrotrapezoid nucleus (RTN) reside in the rostral ventrolateral medulla. Both regulate breathing and the cardiovascular system but in ways that are unclear because of technical limitations (anesthesia, non-selective neuronal actuators). Using optogenetics in unanesthetized rats, we found that selective stimulation of either RTN or C1 neurons activates breathing. However, only RTN triggers active expiration, presumably because RTN, unlike C1 has direct excitatory projections to abdominal premotor neurons. The arousal potential of the C1 neurons is far greater than that of the RTN, however, consistent with C1’s projections to brainstem wake-promoting structures. In short, C1 neurons orchestrate cardiorespiratory and arousal responses to somatic stresses whereas RTN selectively controls lung ventilation and arterial PCO2 stability.