Doctors are looking for a connection between breathing and stress reduction
When people suffer from so-called stress disorders, doctors sometimes advise them to do breathing exercises. Researchers have now found some nerve cells in the brain stem that connect breathing to states of the mind. This could explain how we regulate stress through our breathing.
Scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine found the reason why calm and controlled breathing helps with stress. There is a connection between the breathing and states of our mind. The doctors released a press release on the results of their study.
What do pranayama breathing exercises do?
Doctors sometimes prescribe breathing exercises for people with stress disorders. These include, for example, pranayama breathing exercises during yoga. This technique can shift awareness from a stressed or hectic state to a meditative state, the experts say. This type of breathing is a core component of all forms of yoga. The current study is fascinating because it offers a cellular and molecular understanding of how this effect could work, explains the author Dr. Kevin Yackle.
Why do we become calmer through controlled breathing?
The tiny group of neurons that connects breathing with relaxation, attention, excitement and fear is deep in the brain stem. About 175 neurons from a cluster of almost 3,000 neurons that control autonomous breathing are responsible for the communication between breathing and parts of the brain, which in turn are responsible for attention, arousal and panic. Our breathing frequency could therefore directly influence whether we feel calm or anxious, for example, the doctors explain. This connection has already been established in a test on mice. If the connection works similarly in humans, it could explain why slow controlled breathing calms us down, the scientists say.
Experts inactivate certain neurons
For their investigation, the researchers first divided the 3,000 neurons based on their genetics, because neurons with similar genes can have similar roles in the brain. So the experts came across the special 175 neurons. The next challenge was to uncover the functions of the neurons, the researchers say. Sometimes, the best way to determine how something works is to see what happens when it's gone, the scientists continue. For this reason, they deactivated the neurons individually and then examined the effect.
Bacteria kill the neurons
To do this, the researchers first bred genetically manipulated mice. These had receptors for a toxin that only affects the neurons. So the neurons of the infected mice could be killed by bacteria, which also cause diphtheria, say the doctors.
Experts examined the effects of killed neurons on breathing
Diphtheria can cause serious respiratory diseases in humans, but there is usually no effect on mice, the authors explain. In the experimental animals, the toxin was able to kill the 175 neurons. In this way, these neurons were switched off, but the rest remained intact and fully functional, the scientists continued. Finally, the researchers saw how the loss of these neurons affected the breathing and behavior of the mice.
At first, no effects to be seen
We expected that inactivating the neurons could completely eliminate or dramatically change the mice's breathing pattern, explains author Professor Mark Krasnow from Stanford University School of Medicine. But there was no change in the animals' breathing pattern. For a few days, the researchers thought they had made a mistake in their experiment and the attempt failed.
After a while the breathing and behavior of the mice changed
After a few more attempts and some time past, the scientists finally realized that there was a change in the mice. The animals were extremely quiet for mice, the study authors report. For example, being exposed to a new environment usually causes the mice to sniff excitedly and explore the area. Instead, the treated mice just sat quietly and looked after themselves. On closer inspection, the animals also breathed more slowly, the doctors say.
More research is needed
This clearly shows a connection between breathing, behavior and the inactive 175 neurons. We hope that understanding the function of this center will lead to therapies for stress, depression and other negative emotions, the experts add. Until then, however, some more research is needed. (as)