Compensatory plasticity in diaphragm and intercostal muscle utilization in a rat model of ALS

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In SOD1G93A transgenic rat model of ALS, breathing capacity is preserved until late in disease progression despite profound respiratory motor neuron (MN) cell death. To explore mechanisms preserving breathing capacity, we assessed inspiratory EMG activity in diaphragm and external intercostal T2 (EIC2) and T5 (EIC5) muscles in anesthetized SOD1G93A rats at disease end-stage (20% decrease in body mass). We hypothesized that despite significant phrenic motor neuron loss and decreased phrenic nerve activity, diaphragm electrical activity and trans-diaphragmatic pressure (Pdi) are maintained to sustain ventilation. We alternatively hypothesized that EIC activity is enhanced, compensating for impaired diaphragm function. Diaphragm, EIC2 and EIC5 muscle EMGs and Pdi were measured in urethane-anesthetized, spontaneously breathing female SOD1G93A rats versus wild-type littermates during normoxia (arterial PO2 ˜ 90 mm Hg, PCO2 ˜ 45 mm Hg), maximal chemoreceptor stimulation (MCS: 10.5% O2/7% CO2), spontaneous augmented breaths and sustained tracheal occlusion. Phrenic MNs were counted in C3–5; T2 and T5 ventrolateral MNs were counted. In end-stage SOD1G93A rats, 29% of phrenic MNs survived (vs. wild-type), yet integrated diaphragm EMG amplitude was normal. Nevertheless, maximal Pdi decreased ˜ 30% vs. wild type (p < 0.01) and increased esophageal to gastric pressure ratio (p < 0.05), consistent with persistent diaphragm weakness. Despite major T2 and T5 MN death, integrated EIC2 (100% greater than wild type) and EIC5 (300%) EMG amplitudes were increased in mutant rats during normoxia (p < 0.01), possibly compensating for decreased Pdi. Thus, despite significant phrenic MN loss, diaphragm EMG activity is maintained; in contrast, Pdi was not, suggesting diaphragm dysfunction. Presumably, increased EIC EMG activity compensated for persistent diaphragm weakness. These adjustments contribute to remarkable preservation of breathing ability despite major respiratory motor neuron death and diaphragm dysfunction.

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