This study was carried out to investigate the relationship between the conduction velocity of the vagal afferents arising from the rat lungs and their sensitivities to capsaicin, other chemical irritants, and lung inflation. We recorded single-unit activities of vagal pulmonary afferents (n=205) in anesthetized, open-chest rats, and distinguished C fibers (conduction velocity<2 m/sec) from myelinated afferents; the latter group was further classified into rapidly adapting pulmonary receptors (RARs) and slowly adapting pulmonary stretch receptors (SARs) on the basis of their adaptation indexes to lung inflation. Right-atrial injection of capsaicin (1 μg/kg) evoked an abrupt and intense stimulatory effect in 88.9% (64/72) of the pulmonary C fibers tested, but only a mild stimulation in 6.3% (3/48) of the RARs and none of the SARs. Other inhaled and injected chemical stimulants (e.g., cigarette smoke, lactic acid) activated 68.9% (42/61) of the pulmonary C fibers. The same chemical irritants exerted a mild stimulatory effect in only 14.5% (8/55) of the RARs; this subgroup of RARs exhibited a low or no baseline activity, and half of them were located near the hilum. Chemical stimulants had little or no effect on SARs. The response of pulmonary C fibers to lung inflation (tracheal pressure=30 cm H2O) was not only extremely weak, but also showed a longer onset latency and an irregular pattern. In a sharp contrast, lung inflation evoked rapid and vigorous discharges in both RARs and SARs. In conclusion, C fibers are the primary type of chemosensitive vagal pulmonary afferents in rat lungs.
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