Rationale: The current hypothesis that human pulmonary alveolarization is complete by 3 years is contradicted by new evidence of alveolarization throughout adolescence in mammals.
Objectives: We reexamined the current hypothesis using helium-3 (3He) magnetic resonance (MR) to assess alveolar size noninvasively between 7 and 21 years, during which lung volume nearly quadruples. If new alveolarization does not occur, alveolar size should increase to the same extent.
Methods: Lung volumes were measured by spirometry and plethysmography in 109 healthy subjects aged 7–21 years. Using 3HeMR we determined two independent measures of peripheral airspace dimensions: apparent diffusion coefficient (ADC) of 3He at FRC (n = 109), and average diffusion distance of helium (Xrms¯) by q-space analysis (n = 46). We compared the change in these parameters with lung growth against a model of lung expansion with no new alveolarization.
Measurements and Main Results: ADC increased by 0.19% for every 1% increment in FRC (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.13–0.25), whereas the expected change in the absence of neoalveolarization is 0.41% (95% CI, 0.31–0.52). Similarly, increase of (Xrms¯) with FRC was significantly less than the predicted increase in the absence of neoalveolarization. The number of alveoli is estimated to increase 1.94-fold (95% CI, 1.64–2.30) across the age range studied.
Conclusions: Our observations are best explained by postulating that the lungs grow partly by neoalveolarization throughout childhood and adolescence. This has important implications: developing lungs have the potential to recover from early life insults and respond to emerging alveolar therapies. Conversely, drugs, diseases, or environmental exposures could adversely affect alveolarization throughout childhood.