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The process of breathing is controlled by respiratory centers in the brain stem. Do these centers have an innate activity, i.e., just send out signals to breathing muscles intrinsically, and have the rate and manner in which they do so modified by various regulatory factors?

Or are they driven by imbalances (in levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen ions) like a reflex? Let's say that hypothetically these levels remain static in an acceptable state such that this reflex is no longer needed, would breathing stop since there's no longer a driving motive or would it continue because the respiratory centers have an intrinsic activity?

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While the ultimate purpose of breathing could be considered to be the maintainance of a balance of the substances you are referring to (such as blood oxygen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen ions), the blood levels of these substances do not directly control the production of action potentials within the motor neurons that promote the contraction of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles.

The propagation of these action potentials is initiated by signals from the medullary respiratory center, specifically the neurons in the dorsal respiratory group (DRG) and the ventral respiratory group (VRG). In the VRG, a complex of neurons known pre-Bötzinger complex is responsible for generating the signals that cause the rhythmic muscle contractions involved in breathing:

The respiratory rhythm generator is located in the pre-Bötzinger complex of neurons in the upper part of the VRG. This rhythm generator appears to be composed of pacemaker cells and a complex neural network that, acting together, set the basal respiratory rate.

Vanders Physiology, p473, 15th ed.

So breathing is indeed, as you mention, a process that is controlled by innate neuronal activity but regulated by the concentrations of PO2, PCO2, and H+ concentrations. I recommend you read pages 473 to 477 of Vanders Physiology, which explains these controls in detail, some of which do involve reflexes, say, if O2 concentration in the blood strays too low.

Interestingly, expiration, which is typically a result of actions potentials ceasing and respiratory muscles relaxing, can be controlled by a reflex, known as the Hering-Breuer reflex, during strenuous exercise when the lung is inflated by a large tidal volume. Stretch receptors in the airway in this case are activated, causing the inhibition of inspiratory neurons in the DRG.

Source: Vanders Physiology, 15th ed, section 13.9: "Control of Respiration"

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  • $\begingroup$ That makes much more sense than the whole reflex response. The lecture our college had was using three different sources, each with a different explanation for the driving motive of respiration. Two of those were behind the innate activity idea, but for different origins interestingly enough: one source (Tortora’s Principles of Anatomy and Physiology) said the activity originates in the pre-Botzinger complex like you said, and the other one (Guyton and Hall) said it originated in the DRG, so I suppose Guyton and Hall is the odd one out here (wouldn’t be the first time it is tbh) $\endgroup$ – Dahen Apr 27 '20 at 20:51

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