Indirect bronchial hyperresponsiveness in asthma: mechanisms, pharmacology and implications for clinical research

J Van Schoor, GF Joos, RA Pauwels


Bronchial hyperresponsiveness (BHR), an abnormal increase in airflow limitation following the exposure to a stimulus, is an important pathophysiological characteristic of bronchial asthma. Because of heterogeneity of the airway response to different stimuli, the latter have been divided into direct and indirect stimuli. Direct stimuli cause airflow limitation by a direct action on the effector cells involved in the airflow limitation, while indirect stimuli exert their action essentially on inflammatory and neuronal cells that act as an intermediary between the stimulus and the effector cells. This manuscript reviews the clinical and experimental studies on the mechanisms involved in indirect BHR in patients with asthma. Pharmacological stimuli (adenosine, tachykinins, bradykinin, sodium metabisulphite/sulphur dioxide, and propranolol) as well as physical stimuli (exercise, nonisotonic aerosols, and isocapnic hyperventilation) are discussed. The results of the different direct and indirect bronchial challenge tests are only weakly correlated and are therefore not mutually interchangeable. Limited available data (studies on the effects of allergen avoidance and inhaled corticosteroids) suggest that indirectly acting bronchial stimuli (especially adenosine) might better reflect the degree of airway inflammation than directly acting stimuli. It remains to be established whether monitoring of indirect BHR as a surrogate marker of inflammation (in addition to symptoms and lung function) is of clinical relevance to the long-term management of asthmatic patients. This seems to be the case for the direct stimulus methacholine. More work needs to be performed to find out whether, indirect stimuli are more suitable in asthma monitoring than direct ones. Recommendations on the application of indirect challenges in clinical practice and research will shortly be available from the European Respiratory Society Task Force.