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 ….
See an earlier post, Using the Breath for Physical & Emotional Pain, for some how-to information on a few pranayama techniques.
© Copyright 2017. Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.
DISCLAIMER: Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.