MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?
Response: Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind. In our study we looked for a neurophysiological link that could help explain these claims by measuring breathing, reaction time, and brain activity in a small area in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus. We chose to focus on the locus coeruleus because this area and the chemical it produces play intimate roles in both attention and respiration.
The locus coeruleus produces noradrenaline and releases it to the entire brain. This neurotransmitter functions as an all-purpose action system. When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can’t focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.
MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?
Response: The study, carried at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity, found that participants who focused well while undertaking a task that demanded a lot of attention had greater synchronisation between their breathing patterns and their attention, than those who had poor focus.
This study has shown that as you breathe in locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases. Put simply this means that our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimise your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronised. We believe that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilise attention and boost brain health.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Response: Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centred practices and a steadiness of mind. Our findings could have particular implications for research into brain ageing. Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks. Our research offers one possible reason for this – using our breath to control one of the brain’s natural chemical messengers, noradrenaline, which in the right ‘dose’ helps the brain grow new connections between cells. This study provides one more reason for everyone to boost the health of their brain using a whole range of activities ranging from aerobic exercise to mindfulness meditation.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?
Response: We are currently running a high-grained temporal study on the link between respiration and mind wandering using EEG, attempting to find the particular moments during respiration that attention tends to wander and then again to become focused. Future research should examine the effects of training respiratory synchronization on attentionally compromised populations, such as ADHD, traumatic brain injury, and cognitive decline in older age. It may also prove beneficial to examine changes in the synchronization between respiration and attention in advanced meditators and Yogis in order to gain a deeper understanding of attention, meditative practices, and the mind in general.
Disclosures: No disclosures, study was unfunded and there are no conflicts of interest.
Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama
Michael Christopher Melnychuk, Paul M. Dockree, Redmond G. O’Connell, Peter R. Murphy, Joshua H. Balsters, Ian H. Robertson
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