The vagus nerve is one of the principle conduits of sensory information from the airways to the brain, and its integrity is required for normal respiration. Vagal neurons detect stretch in the lung, inflammatory mediators, and irritants, and drive reflex outputs including cough, bronchoconstriction, and airway secretion. Vagal sensory neurons also contribute to pathophysiology in animal models of asthma, but the mechanisms by which vagal sensory neurons detect and encode stimuli and their contributions to asthma pathogenesis are poorly understood. As a result, current therapy remains unable to specifically target the neurogenic component of airway disease. In preliminary data, we used molecular and genetic techniques to identify non-overlapping subsets of vagal sensory neurons that target the lung. These neuronal subsets are defined by expression of either P2RY1, a purinergic G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR), or NPY2R, a neuropeptide Y GPCR. We adapted tools to map, image, and activate these neuron populations and found that they exhibit strong and opposing effects on breathing (Cell, 2015). When activated, P2RY1 neurons induce apnea, while activation of NPY2R neurons causes rapid, shallow breathing. We further found that P2RY1 neurons are capsaicin-insensitive, express the mechanosensitive ion channel Piezo2, and are fast-conducting A-fibers. In contrast, NPY2R neurons are largely capsaicin-sensitive C fibers. Based on these results, I hypothesize that NPY2R neurons are dedicated irritant receptors, while P2RY1 neurons serve a regulatory role. However, the stimuli to which these neurons respond has never been directly tested. Furthermore, their contribution to airway defense reflexes and disease have not been tested, despite strong parallels between NPY2R neurons and previously described vagal pulmonary nociceptors. In this application, I propose a series of experiments to define the contribution of NPY2R neurons to a mouse model of allergic asthma. Next, I introduce a novel in vivo calcium imaging preparation that has been developed and validated in the Sponsor's laboratory, which I will use to query the response properties of vagal P2RY1 and NPY2R neurons. These experiments will define a vagal sensory circuit from sensory detection in the lung to reflex motor output and establish the role of this circuit in an important model of airway disease. Understanding what these sensory neurons detect and control will advance our understanding of airway disease and may provide a basis for novel cellular and molecular therapeutic targets.

Public Health Relevance

Fibers from the vagus nerve convey sensory information from the lungs to the brain, and a subset of these fibers have hallmarks of irritant detectors. The goal of this project is to explore the contribution of these neurons to the detection of noxious stimuli in the airways and the development of asthmatic disease. We aim to gain better appreciation of this poorly defined sensory system so that we can suggest alternative strategies for therapeutic intervention.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F31)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1)
Program Officer
Laposky, Aaron D
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Harvard Medical School
Schools of Medicine
United States
Zip Code
Umans, Benjamin D; Liberles, Stephen D (2018) Neural Sensing of Organ Volume. Trends Neurosci 41:911-924
Baral, Pankaj; Umans, Benjamin D; Li, Lu et al. (2018) Nociceptor sensory neurons suppress neutrophil and ?? T cell responses in bacterial lung infections and lethal pneumonia. Nat Med 24:417-426
Williams, Erika K; Chang, Rui B; Strochlic, David E et al. (2016) Sensory Neurons that Detect Stretch and Nutrients in the Digestive System. Cell 166:209-21