The regulation of breathing is dependent on the complex interaction of three components of the respiratory system: 1) the control centers, 2) the sensors, and 3) the effector organs. The control centers reside in the brainstem and are responsible for the automaticity of breathing. Input into these respiratory centers can be initiated from higher brain centers in order to produce voluntary breathing efforts. Afferent neural signals also come to the central control system from the respiratory sensors, which are divided into two categories: chemoreceptors and sensory receptors. The chemoreceptors respond to changes in the blood oxygen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen ion concentration by sending impulses to the control center to alter the ventilatory pattern by affecting the effector organs—the respiratory muscles. The sensory receptors are located in the upper and lower airways, the lung, and the muscles of respiration. They also can have a marked effect on the respiratory pattern. It is believed that stimulation of these receptors is important in the initiation of hyperventilation and cough in lung diseases such as asthma. There is also recent evidence that respiratory chemoreceptor responsiveness is abnormal in patients with asthma who have a history of near-fatal attacks.
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