The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is paying a researcher over $53,000 to study sighs.
The new study, which began in January, will focus on the role that brain cells play in "sigh generation."
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"Periodic sigh generation is required to maintain normal blood gas levels, and the inability to generate sighs is related to serious respiratory conditions such as lung atelectasis," the project’s grant said. "Sighs also play an important role in triggering arousal, and the loss of sighs has been related to an increased risk of SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome]."
Tatiana Dashevskiy, a senior researcher at Seattle Children’s Hospital, is leading the study, which is scheduled to last until 2016. The grant said the project is important because the origination of sighs is unknown.
"The role of sighs in maintaining blood gas levels and triggering arousal during hypoxia suggests that sighs may be produced when metabolic activity is altered with the purpose of coordinating and resetting the sparsely connected central respiratory networks," the grant said. "Unfortunately, the mechanisms underlying sigh generation and periodicity remain unclear."
"Specifically, we propose to examine neuron-glia interactions for novel signaling pathways that underlie sigh generation and periodicity," it said. Glia are brain cells that support neurons, and are believed to play a pivotal role in breathing.
"The central respiratory network controls breathing and produces three distinct patterns of activity: eupnea [quiet breathing], gasping, and sighs," the grant said.
The researchers said figuring out how sighs are produced will lead to a better understanding of the respiratory system.
"By creating a new model of the respiratory network, which incorporates the collected data, we will be able to mimic different neuromodulatory and metabolic states of the system and thus use this model to investigate new testable hypothesis," it said.
The cost for the first year of the study is $53,282.