Reflex cough is a defensive response generated in the brainstem in response to chemical and mechanical stimulation of the airways. However, converging evidence shows that reflex cough is also influenced by central neural control processes. In this study, we investigate whether reflex cough can be modulated by attentional focus on either external stimuli or internal cough-related stimuli.
Healthy volunteers (N = 24; seven men; age range, 18-25 years) completed four blocks of citric acid-induced cough challenges while, simultaneously, auditory stimuli were presented. Within each block, four concentrations were administered (30, 100, 300 and 1,000 mM, randomized). During two subsequent blocks, participants focused their attention externally (counting tones). During the other two blocks, participants focused their attention internally (counting coughs). The order of attentional focus was counterbalanced across participants. Ratings of the urge to cough were collected after each challenge. Cough frequency was determined by audio recording.
Cough frequency was higher when participants focused their attention internally vs externally (P < .05). Also urge to cough was greater during internal vs external focus (P < .05), but the effect was smaller in later blocks of trials.
Reflex cough can be modulated by attentional focus. Internally focused attention may be a mechanism involved in excessive (idiopathic) cough, while an external focus may be introduced as part of treatments targeting excessive cough.