Keeping breathing steady and safe

Opiates, including morphine and fentanyl, are powerful painkillers and anesthetics, but they also can slow a person’s breathing to a dangerous rate. Scientists studying the kernel of brain cells that controls a body’s breathing rhythm may have discovered a way to prevent this sometimes-fatal side effect.

Over the past decade, biologists have pinpointed a region in the brain stem called the pre-Bötzinger complex and learned that it generates the electrical impulses that drive breathing (SN: 1/4/03, p. 8: Available to subscribers at Breathtaking Science). Nerve cells in this region have proteins on their surfaces that respond to opiates, which is how drugs that bind to the proteins suppress breathing.

Diethelm W. Richter of the University of Göttingen in Germany and his colleagues now have shown that about half the cells in the pre-Bötzinger complex sport proteins that respond to serotonin, a major neurotransmitter. If rats are treated with an experimental drug, dubbed BIMU8, that stimulates one of these serotonin receptors, their breathing rate increases, the scientists report in the July 11 Science.

Moreover, fentanyl-treated rats resumed normal breathing when given BIMU8. Equally important, say the researchers, fentanyl’s painkilling properties remained potent after the animals received the experimental drug.


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