Regulation of Breathing

The rate at which oxygen is used depends on the activity of the cells. The greater their activity, the more oxygen they need and the faster the body needs to breathe. The slower their activity, the slower the body needs to breathe. Both rate and depth of breathing change in order to provide oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide.

The rate of breathing is controlled by the brain and brain stem, which monitors the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood. As activity increases, high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood stimulate nerve cells in the brain. The brain stem in turn stimulates the diaphragm to increase the breathing rate and depth. When the carbon dioxide concentration in the blood returns to lower levels, the sensors in the brain send a message to the respiratory muscles to return to a slower breathing rate. All this is controlled subconsciously by control centers in the brain. However, a person can temporarily override the respiratory control system at any time, holding his or her breath until losing consciousness. Then the brain stem takes control, and normal breathing resumes. This mechanism allows humans to swim underwater for short periods and to sleep without concern for breathing.

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