Researchers at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown that a unique, non-invasive treatment involving flickering light restores disrupted gamma waves in the brains of mice with Alzheimer’s disease.
Brain cells firing rhythmically and in sync produce waves, which are categorized by their firing frequencies. Delta waves (1.5 Hz to 4 Hz) are produced during deep sleep. Theta waves (4 Hz to 12 Hz) occur during running and deep meditation. And gamma waves (25 Hz to 100 Hz) are associated with excitement and concentration.
Changes in gamma waves in the range of 20–50 Hz have been observed in several neurological disorders. (Iaccarino, 2016). This gamma wave disruption may be a key factor in Alzheimer’s disease pathology, according to a 2016 mouse study published in Nature. The MIT researchers propose that restoration of these waves may one day also be an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease in humans.
Controlled breathing has been used since antiquity to relieve anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. What hasn’t been known is exactly how this works.
As reported in an article called “Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice” published in Science, a group of researchers set out to locate the physiological, neuronal basis of the relationship between breathing and higher-order brain activity and accidentally discovered a clue about how breathing calms the mind. (Yackle et al, 2017)
In the study, the researchers were trying to identify different types of neurons in a group of nearly 3,000 to understand their various roles in breathing function.
Their focus was on the pre-Bötzinger complex (or preBötC), known as the ‘breathing pacemaker’, which is found in humans as well as in mice.
BREATHING CALMS THE MIND & BODY
Rhythmic activity of a cluster of neurons located in the brain stem instigates breathing and regulates the balance between calm and aroused states. The researchers found a subgroup of 175 cells in this group of neurons in the breathing pacemaker that connects directly to a part of the brain that plays a key role in generalized alertness, attention, and stress. When the researchers removed these 175 cells from mouse brains, the mice continued breathing normally but became very calm. (Yackle et al, 2017)
One of the study authors, Mark Krasnow, Professor of Biochemistry at Stanford University School of Medicine, said, “We expected that [inactivating the neurons] might completely eliminate or dramatically alter the breathing pattern of the mice.”
But that’s not what happened. Their breathing patterns were unchanged after the neurons were knocked out. What did occur was that the mice “had become chill. Mellow fellows,” Krasnow said. (Boddy, 2017)
The researchers found that these 175 neurons directly regulate a structure located in the brain stem (the most primitive part of the human brain) called the locus coeruleus, which is linked to arousal states. Anyone who’s ever experienced anxiety or panic knows that the brain is hyper-aroused in these states. In depression, the brain feels under-aroused.
“The brain stem is the oldest and smallest region in the evolving human brain. It evolved hundreds of millions of years ago and is more like the entire brain of present-day reptiles. For this reason, it is often called the ‘reptilian brain’. Various clumps of cells in the brain stem determine the brain’s general level of alertness and regulate the vegetative processes of the body such as breathing and heartbeat.
“It’s similar to the brain possessed by the hardy reptiles that preceded mammals, roughly 200 million years ago. It’s ‘preverbal’, but controls life functions such as autonomic brain, breathing, heart rate and the fight or flight mechanism. Lacking language, its impulses are instinctual and ritualistic. It’s concerned with fundamental needs such as survival, physical maintenance, hoarding, dominance, preening and mating. It is also found in lower life forms such as lizards, crocodiles and birds. It is at the base of your skull emerging from your spinal column.” (Crystallinks, undated)
THE BREATH, YOGA & MEDITATION
It’s not a coincidence that controlled, purposeful breathing is an important part of meditation and yoga. As you’ve also probably noticed, humans instinctively tend to take a long, deep breath and sigh it out to relax and center ourselves.
“It’s clear that the way you breathe — whether fast or slow, shallow or deep — sends messages to your body that affect your mood, your stress levels and even your immune system.” (Mercola, 2017)
This mouse research has discovered the formerly unknown physiological link between breathing rate and emotional state – at least in mice. Jack Feldman, a study co-author and Distinguished Professor of Neurology at UCLA says:
“It’s a tie between breathing itself and changed in emotional state and arousal that we had never looked at before. It has considerable potential for therapeutic use.” (Mercola, 2017)
DRUGS OR PRANAYAMA
The scientists are probably hoping to create pharmaceuticals that calm this tiny region of the brain. If you’re given to taking drugs for what ails you, you can wait for such pills to come to market – or you can practice pranayama techniques and learn to calm yourself down now.
Pranayama is a Sanskrit word for controlled breathing. It comes from Prana (life energy and Ayama (to extend or draw out). Pranayama practices are thought to have originated in ancient India (along with the origins of yoga) around the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. (EkhartYoga Yoga online, 2017)
You don’t have to be a yogi to practice controlled breathing. It can be done pretty much anywhere – sitting in a chair, lying down in bed, walking, on an airplane ….
Much research is now being done on the gut-brain axis – the biochemical and neuronal communication that’s constantly taking place between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. The gut-brain axis works in both directions – from gut to brain and brain to gut – and affects GI functioning as well as hormones, immunity, mood, motivation, and higher cognitive functions.
That’s all pretty amazing in itself but how’s this for mind blowing?
A new study shows that the composition of a person’s gut microbiome can be improved through electromagnetic brain stimulation – leading to weight loss. The technique is called deep transcranial magnetic stimulation (dTMS) and is non-invasive.
Research has found that an imbalance in the mix of beneficial and harmful micro-organisms inhabiting the gut microbiome affects the brain’s signals for hunger and satiety (fullness), leading to obesity.
Building on that, a team of researchers at the IRCCS Policlinico San Donato and the University of Milan worked jointly to examine how dTMS could improve the make up of obese subjects’ gut microbiomes, causing them to lose weight.
“This study expands on the researchers’ previous finding that dTMS reduced food cravings and induced weight loss in obese individuals. Unlike deep brain stimulation, dTMS does not need an operation or implantation of electrodes. Instead, an electromagnetic coil is placed on the scalp and sends magnetic pulses to stimulate specific deep regions of the brain. Currently approved in the U.S. for treating major depression, dTMS is being studied in some countries for the treatment of other neuropsychiatric disorders, especially addiction.” (Endocrine Society, 2017)
By the end of the five weeks of treatment, the people who’d received dTMS lost over 3% of their body weight and more than 4% of their fat, significantly more than the control subjects.
The most interesting finding: At the end of the five week study, stool sample analysis of the dTMS-treated subjects showed the quantities of several beneficial bacterial species possessing anti-inflammatory properties in their gut microbiomes had also greatly increased. And more good news: The dTMS-treated subjects had more abundant bacterial species correlated with improvements in metabolic and hormonal functions, including glucose, insulin, some pituitary hormones, and norepinephrine.
“These changes suggest a beneficial effect of dTMS on both weight loss and change in microbiota composition,” Livio Luzi, MD, head of the research team, said. “Our research shows the innovative ability of dTMS in exerting anti-obesity effects through alteration of the gut-brain axis.” (Endocrine Society, 2017)
In recent years, transcranial magnetic stimulation has also shown promise as a treatment for a variety of health problems, including major depression, migraines, and boosting memory function. (Haridy, 2017)
Many thanks to Leni Fuhrman for sending me the Haridy article about this fascinating work.
We all know that pain, both physical and emotional, is unavoidable in our lives. And we also know that emotional pain often produces physical pain and physical pain can produce emotional pain. Then there’s the sort of physical or psychic pain that’s mysterious, hurting apparently for no reason at all. Some people have an easier time with physical pain, which often feels more understandable and manageable than mental anguish.
What our pills-and-surgery-focused culture doesn’t do a particularly good job with is helping us ward off or ease both kinds of pain.
This post is about using the breath for both physical and emotional pain. I can tell you from first hand experience that it’s a highly effective approach.
MINDSET ALTERS PAIN PERCEPTION
Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder recently found that our ability to use our thoughts to modulate perceptions of pain utilizes a completely separate brain pathway than the pathway that sends physical pain signals to the brain.
Sensations of physical pain are sent via nerves to a number of regions in the brain which register where the pain is occurring and its intensity, mostly to the anterior cingulate cortex.
This study discovered a second pathway which can mediate the PERCEPTION of pain. This pathway involves areas of the brain associated with emotion and motivation, such as the medial prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens. When these regions become activated, we experience pain as less acute.
Source: Psychology Today
The brains of 33 study participants were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they received painful heat stimuli on their arms. (This sounds quite unpleasant. Fortunately, all participants had provided informed consent.)
“During the first scan, the participants were asked to clear their minds and not think of anything in particular while being subjected to the painful heat on their arms.
“In the second scan, the participants were asked to imagine that the burning heat was actually damaging their skin. This mindset was found to increase perceptions of pain.
“In the final scan, participants were asked to imagine that the heat was actually a welcome sensation on an extremely cold day—this explanatory style was found to decrease the perceived experience of the pain.
“When the brain scans were compared the pathways for experiencing physical pain remained the same across all three scenarios, regardless of how the participants rated their pain experience. However, the breakthrough discovery was that the researchers discovered a second brain pathway that changed in intensity depending on the type of thoughts, or “cognitive self-regulation” used by participants.”
– (Bergland, 2015) & (Woo et al, 2015)
LAMAZE BREATHING TECHNIQUES FOR LABOR & DELIVERY PAIN
Contractions during heavy labor are generally considered to be pretty high up on the pain scale. I was very fortunate to be pregnant in the mid 1970’s in California when Lamaze techniques were popular for managing labor pains. A principal tenet of Lamaze childbirth is that controlled breathing enhances relaxation and decreases perception of pain. (Lothian, 2011)
Toward the end of my pregnancy, I took a Lamaze class to learn these specific breathing techniques and experienced intense pain only once during labor and delivery – when I got distracted by something and lost control of my breathing during one contraction toward the end of labor. I generally have a pretty high tolerance for physical pain and would rate the pain during that one contraction as an 8 1/2 out of 10 on the Pain Scale.
Learning how to use my breath to relax during labor and distract my mind from perceiving the pain has had the additional benefit of helping me weather other physical pain since then – and has been very handy for dealing with psychic pain too.
DR JOHN SARNO: ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF THE POWERFUL MIND- BODY INTERACTION
John E. Sarno, MD, is a retired professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, New York University Medical Center and an expert on how to stop musculo-skeletal pain without drugs or surgeries. He is the author of The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain, The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders, and several other best selling books on the connection between emotions and physical pain – the psychosomatic process.
In his long career treating people with chronic pain, Sarno observed that they often preferred suffering with chronic physical pain to dealing with their unresolved emotional pain. He developed a treatment approach of educating his patients about this connection and helping them to figure out what was so deeply upsetting to them that they were afraid to know it consciously. Once they were able to identify their chronic physical symptoms as “distractions” serving to keep these deeply unconscious emotional issues repressed, their physical symptoms no longer served any useful purpose and stopped.
SO WHAT WORKS
Here are some of my favorite breathing techniques that are good for reducing the experience of pain. They calm the body and keep you in your calm center instead of focusing on the pain. Since pain isn’t experienced as painful unless it registers in your brain, it’s worth playing around with these so they’ll be available to you when you need them.
If you start to feel light headed during any of these breathing techniques, that just means you’re breathing out a lot more than you’re breathing in. Practicing evening out your in and out breaths will fix it.
3-part yoga breathing (dirga pranayama) is a basic technique that lets you breathe fully and easily. It’s very good for feeling calm and empowered.
Ocean Breath (Ujayii in Sanskrit) is my all time, everyday favorite for yoga and life – including dealing with physical and psychic pain.
BREATHING WITH PAUSES
Breathing with pauses at the top and bottom of each breath is very calming to the body. If you also divide your breath to pause in the middle of inhales and exhales, it’s even more effective. You can add more pauses, dividing your inhales and exhales into 2, 3, 4, 5 pauses in addition to the pauses at the top and bottom of each breath. Gradually, you’ll be able to extend the pauses, which is where the calming happens.
Having to use your mind to count keeps it from thinking about anything else, including registering pain. This video will give you the idea of how to do the pauses.
DR ANDREW WEILL’S 4-7-8 BREATH
Dr Weill’s 4-7-8 well known breathing technique is especially helpful for falling asleep.
Bee Breath (Brahmari in Sanskrit) is another of my favorites. Try it while lying on your back in bed when your brain is generating thoughts that are interfering with your falling asleep.
EMOTIONAL FREEDOM TECHNIQUE (EFT) FOR PAIN
This is very helpful for all kinds of pain, acute and chronic. You can change the language to suit your situation.
Pairing this with a breathing technique of your choice is sublime.
UNIVERSAL BREATHING: PRANAYAMA
I also like this breathing app that teaches the body how to breathe properly. It works on iPhone, Android, Nook and Mac. You get to choose the amount of time you want to practice breathing with this app, the speed that works for you, and whether you want music or silence while it’s running.