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SubSol-HIe is an AMPK-dependent hypoxia-responsive subnucleus of the nucleus tractus solitarius that coordinates the hypoxic ventilatory response and protects against apnoea in mice.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) suggests that the hypoxic ventilatory response is facilitated by the AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), not at the carotid bodies, but within a subnucleus (Bregma -7.5 to -7.1 mm) of the nucleus tractus solitarius that exhibits right-sided bilateral asymmetry. Here, we map this subnucleus using cFos expression as a surrogate for neuronal activation and mice in which the genes encoding the AMPK-α1 (Prkaa1) and AMPK-α2 (Prkaa2) catalytic subunits were deleted in catecholaminergic cells by Cre expression via the tyrosine hydroxylase promoter. Comparative analysis of brainstem sections, relative to controls, revealed that AMPK-α1/α2 deletion inhibited, with right-sided bilateral asymmetry, cFos expression in and thus activation of a neuronal cluster that partially spanned three interconnected anatomical nuclei adjacent to the area postrema: SolDL (Bregma -7.44 mm to -7.48 mm), SolDM (Bregma -7.44 mm to -7.48 mm) and SubP (Bregma -7.48 mm to -7.56 mm). This approximates the volume identified by fMRI. Moreover, these nuclei are known to be in receipt of carotid body afferent inputs, and catecholaminergic neurons of SubP and SolDL innervate aspects of the ventrolateral medulla responsible for respiratory rhythmogenesis. Accordingly, AMPK-α1/α2 deletion attenuated hypoxia-evoked increases in minute ventilation (normalised to metabolism), reductions in expiration time, and increases sigh frequency, but increased apnoea frequency during hypoxia. The metabolic response to hypoxia in AMPK-α1/α2 knockout mice and the brainstem and spinal cord catecholamine levels were equivalent to controls. We conclude that within the brainstem an AMPK-dependent, hypoxia-responsive subnucleus partially spans SubP, SolDM and SolDL, namely SubSol-HIe, and is critical to coordination of active expiration, the hypoxic ventilatory response and defence against apnoea.

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