1. The trachea, larynx and main bronchi with the right vagus nerve and nodose ganglion were isolated from guinea-pigs passively immunized 24 h previously with serum containing anti-ovalbumin antibody. 2. The airways were placed in one compartment of a Perspex chamber for recording of isometric tension while the nodose ganglion and attached vagus nerve were pulled into another compartment. Action potentials arriving from single airway afferent nerve endings were monitored extracellularly using a glass microelectrode positioned near neuronal cell bodies in the ganglion. Mechanosensitivity of the nerve endings was quantified using calibrated von Frey filaments immediately before and after exposure to antigen (10 μg ml-1 ovalbumin). 3. Ten endings responded to the force exerted by the lowest filament (0.078 mN) and were not further investigated. In air ways from thirteen immunized guinea-pigs, the mechanical sensitivity of Aδ afferent fibres (conduction velocity = 4.3 ± 0.6 m s-1) was enhanced 4.1 ± 0.9-fold following airway exposure to antigen (P < 0.005). Mechanical sensitivities of afferent fibres (conduction velocity = 4.3 ± 0.6 m s-1) from non-immunized control guinea-pig airways were unaffected by antigen (n = 13). 4. Antigen did not overtly cause action potential generation except in one instance when the receptive field was located over the smooth muscle. This ending also responded to methacholine suggesting that spatial changes in the receptive field, induced by muscle contraction, were responsible for the activation. 5. The mediators responsible for these effects are unknown, although histamine, prostaglandins, leukotrienes and tachykinins do not appear to be essential. The increase in mechanical responsiveness was not associated with the smooth muscle contraction since leukotriene C4, histamine and tachykinins, which all caused a similar contraction to antigen, did not affect mechanical thresholds. Moreover, the antigen-induced increases in excitability persisted beyond the duration of the smooth muscle contraction. 6. These results demonstrate that antigen-antibody-mediated inflammatory processes may enhance the excitability of vagal afferent nerve terminals projecting from the airway and thus may contribute to the pathophysiology of allergic airway diseases.
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