Development of the brainstem respiratory circuit

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article


External Institution(s)

  • Baylor College of Medicine


Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere366
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Developmental Biology
Issue number3
StatusPublished - May 1 2020


The respiratory circuit is comprised of over a dozen functionally and anatomically segregated brainstem nuclei that work together to control respiratory rhythms. These respiratory rhythms emerge prenatally but only acquire vital importance at birth, which is the first time the respiratory circuit faces the sole responsibility for O2/CO2 homeostasis. Hence, the respiratory circuit has little room for trial-and-error-dependent fine tuning and relies on a detailed genetic blueprint for development. This blueprint is provided by transcription factors that have specific spatiotemporal expression patterns along the rostral-caudal or dorsal-ventral axis of the developing brainstem, in proliferating precursor cells and postmitotic neurons. Studying these transcription factors in mice has provided key insights into the functional segregation of respiratory control and the vital importance of specific respiratory nuclei. Many studies converge on just two respiratory nuclei that each have rhythmogenic properties during the prenatal period: the preBötzinger complex (preBötC) and retrotrapezoid nucleus/parafacial nucleus (RTN/pF). Here, we discuss the transcriptional regulation that guides the development of these nuclei. We also summarize evidence showing that normal preBötC development is necessary for neonatal survival, and that neither the preBötC nor the RTN/pF alone is sufficient to sustain normal postnatal respiratory rhythms. Last, we highlight several studies that use intersectional genetics to assess the necessity of transcription factors only in subregions of their expression domain. These studies independently demonstrate that lack of RTN/pF neurons weakens the respiratory circuit, yet these neurons are not necessary for neonatal survival because developmentally related populations can compensate for abnormal RTN/pF function at birth. This article is categorized under: Nervous System Development > Vertebrates: Regional Development.

    Research areas

  • brainstem, neonatal breathing, prebotzinger complex, respiratory circuit, retrotrapezoid nucleus

Citation formats


van der Heijden, M. E., & Zoghbi, H. Y. (2020). Development of the brainstem respiratory circuit. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Developmental Biology, 9(3), [e366].


van der Heijden, ME & Zoghbi, HY 2020, 'Development of the brainstem respiratory circuit', Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Developmental Biology, vol. 9, no. 3, e366.