The diaphragm: two physiological muscles in one

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To the respiratory physiologist or anatomist the diaphragm muscle is of course the prime mover of tidal air. However, gastrointestinal physiologists are becoming increasingly aware of the value of this muscle in helping to stop gastric contents from refluxing into the oesophagus. The diaphragm should be viewed as two distinct muscles, crural and costal, which act in synchrony throughout respiration. However, the activities of these two muscular regions can diverge during certain events such as swallowing and emesis. In addition, transient crural muscle relaxations herald the onset of spontaneous acid reflux episodes. Studying the motor control of this muscular barrier may help elucidate the mechanism of these episodes. In the rat, the phrenic nerve divides into three branches before entering the diaphragm, and it is possible to sample single neuronal activity from the crural and costal branches. This review will discuss our recent findings with regard to the type of motor axons running in the phrenic nerve of the rat. In addition, we will outline our ongoing search for homologous structures in basal vertebrate groups. In particular, the pipid frogs (e.g. the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis) possess a muscular band around the oesophagus that appears to be homologous to the mammalian crural diaphragm. This structure does not appear to interact directly with the respiratory apparatus, and could suggest a role for this region of the diaphragm, which was not originally respiratory.

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