Peripheral chemoreceptors (carotid and aortic bodies) and central chemoreceptors (medullary neurons) primarily function to regulate respiratory activity. This is an important mechanism for maintaining arterial blood pO2, pCO2, and pH within appropriate physiological ranges. For example, a fall in arterial pO2 (hypoxemia) or an increase in arterial pCO2 (hypercapnia) leads to an increase in the rate and depth of respiration through activation of the chemoreceptor reflex. Chemoreceptor activity, however, also affects cardiovascular function either directly (by interacting with medullary vasomotor centers) or indirectly (via altered pulmonary stretch receptor activity). Respiratory arrest and circulatory shock (these conditions decrease arterial pO2 and pH, and increase arterial pCO2) dramatically increase chemoreceptor activity leading to enhanced sympathetic outflow to the heart and vasculature via activation of the vasomotor center in the medulla. Cerebral ischemia activates central chemoreceptors, which produces simultaneous activation of sympathetic and vagal nerves to the cardiovascular system.
The carotid bodies are located on the external carotid arteries near their bifurcation with the internal carotids. Each carotid body is a few millimeters in size and has the distinction of having the highest blood flow per tissue weight of any organ in the body. Afferent nerve fibers join with the sinus nerve before entering the glossopharyngeal nerve. A decrease in carotid body blood flow results in cellular hypoxia, hypercapnia, and decreased pH that lead to an increase in receptor firing. The threshold pO2 for activation is about 80 mmHg (normal arterial pO2 is about 95 mmHg). Any elevation of pCO2 above a normal value of 40 mmHg, or a decrease in pH below 7.4 causes receptor firing. If respiratory activity is not allowed to change during chemoreceptor stimulation (thus removing the influence of lung mechanoreceptors), then chemoreceptor activation causes bradycardia and coronary vasodilation (both via vagal activation) and systemic vasoconstriction (via sympathetic activation). If respiratory activity increases, then sympathetic activity stimulates both the heart and vasculature to increase arterial pressure.