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Effect Of Esophageal Acid Exposure On The Cortical Swallowing Network In Healthy Human Subjects

Mark Kern, Krisna Chai, Adeyemi Lawal, Reza Shaker

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Recent studies have demonstrated common cortical activity regions associated with esophageal acidification and swallowing. The effect of sensory signals imparted on these regions by esophageal acidification on swallow-related brain activity has physiological and clinical ramifications. Our aim in this study was to determine the effect of prior, unperceived esophageal acid exposure on cortical activity associated with swallowing. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques monitored brain activity associated with volitional swallowing before and after subliminal esophageal acid stimulation. Studies were carried out in two phases. In phase I (15 healthy, right-handed subjects, age 21–49 yr, 7 female) using whole brain imaging, we documented the potentiating effects of esophageal acidification alone on swallow-related cortical activity. In phase II (10 healthy, right-handed subjects, age 20–54 yr, 5 female) using high-resolution fMRI, we measured swallow-induced regional brain activity within the cortical swallowing network before and after esophageal acidification. Unlike the phase I studies, we also tested the effect of saline perfusion alone on the cortical swallowing network in the phase II studies. Because of constraints imposed by high-resolution MRI for region-of-interest (ROI) analysis, we studied only the left hemisphere in this phase. None of the subjects developed heartburn during acid perfusion. In phase I, the number of swallow-induced activated voxels increased by 43% following esophageal acid stimulation (preacid, 44 ± 3 voxels; postacid, 63 ± 6 voxels; means ± SE, P < 0.05) In phase II, contrary to saline perfusion, ROI analysis showed significantly increased regional swallow-related fMRI activity volumes as well as percent maximum signal change after esophageal acid perfusion in cingulate, prefrontal, insula, and sensory/motor regions ( P < 0.05). The precuneus showed no significant change. We concluded that subliminal esophageal acid stimulation has a potentiating effect on the cortical swallowing network in healthy individuals.