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A new publication co-authored by UNC Health Chapel Hill functional neurosurgeon Dr. Vibhor Krishna was published in the prestigious PNAS Journal this week. The publication, titled “Single neurons in the thalamus and subthalamic nucleus process cardiac and respiratory signals in humans” aims to understand how the human brain analyzes signals from the body to achieve brain-body integration.

The human brain constantly receives information from the body, specifically from the visceral organs such as the heart and lungs. This information seldom reaches consciousness but is critical for maintaining homeostasis and influencing human performance, including perception, emotion, and cognition. Dr. Krishna’s collaborative research takes a unique approach by investigating whether neurons in the human thalamus process the incoming stream of information from the heart and lungs, something that very few studies have done.

This novel research discovered that specific thalamic neurons in the human brain are actively involved in processing cardiac and respiratory signals and expanding our understanding of body-brain communication. “Each heartbeat and every breath create a rich incoming stream of sensory information for the human brain,” said Dr. Krishna, co-senior author of the publication. “However, a deeper understanding of how the brain integrates this information has remained elusive. We are interested in discovering how the human brain achieves the integration of cardio-respiratory information and whether its breakdown is linked to any disorders of the brain, heart, or lungs observed in the clinic.”

The clinical and research teams collaboratively embarked on the journey to study this integration. They observed a direct functional involvement of thalamic and subthalamic neurons in processing cardio-respiratory signals. This information can help to better characterize the functional pathway of visceral signal processing in the subcortical regions. This research can be significant for several medical specializations, including cardiology, pulmonology, neurology, psychiatry, and psychological research.

Applauding this research as a significant step forward, Dr. Nelson Oyesiku, the Chair of Neurosurgery at UNC, Chapel Hill, emphasizes, ‘We understand that the brain maintains homeostasis throughout the body through direct neurological and endocrine regulation. This research reveals that the incoming information from the heart and lungs is processed in the thalamic and subthalamic brain regions, besides other regions, enabling our brain to effectively assume its role in regulating bodily functions.’

Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute and Associate Dean of Neuroscience at West Virginia School of Medicine worked with Dr. Krishna on the study and publication. “Better understanding of the human brain is the next frontier,” said Dr. Rezai. “And interdisciplinary collaborations between functional neurosurgeons and neuroscientists will enable us to gain an unprecedented window into the inner functioning of the human brain.”

About Dr. Vibhor Krishna

Dr. Vibhor Krishna is a board-certified neurosurgeon with expertise in functional neurosurgery and neuromodulation. As a surgeon-scientist, he focuses on translational neuromodulation research with a goal to improve patient outcomes. His research aims to enhance neuromodulation’s effectiveness through personalized medicine, developing and optimizing less-invasive neurosurgery, and testing emerging surgical treatments in clinical trials.

About Dr. Ali Rezai

Dr. Ali Rezai is a functional neurosurgeon and is dedicated to advancing the care of people with neurological and mental health conditions. He is the Associate Dean of Neuroscience at West Virginia University (WVU) and Executive Chair and Director of the WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute. He is the author of more than 200 scientific publications, and his clinical practice focuses on neuromodulation for movement disorders, chronic pain, nervous system injury, and neurobehavioral disorders.

About PNAS

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) is one of the world’s most-cited and comprehensive multidisciplinary scientific journals, publishing more than 3,500 research papers annually. PNAS is a peer-reviewed journal and an authoritative source of high-impact, original research that broadly spans the biological, physical, and social sciences.


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