Laboratory Products

How Does Breathing Affect Your Brain?

Jan 11 2017 Read 1115 Times

Even a kindergartener understands that breathing is a fundamental part of survival. But now, a team of researchers from Northwestern University has taken the concept one step further, and discovered that the act of nasal breathing actively modulates brain activity and mental function.

Led by Christina Zelano, the new research confirms that breathing rhythms have a direct impact on brain activity. Notably, the complex areas of the organ associated with smell, memory and emotions. The team maintains that the action of breathing in through the nose synchronises electrical activity across these neural regions, and can actively enhance their function and performance.

The breakthrough findings were published in the Journal of Neuroscience, and suggest that as well as supplying oxygen to the brain and body, the act of breathing could also play a fundamental role in organising cellular activity within the brain, and orchestrating complex behaviours.

Crystallising 75 years of suspicion

While the findings are radical, it’s not the first-time scientists have explored the relationship between breathing and brain activity. 75 years ago, British physiologist Edgar Adrian studied neurological activity in hedgehogs, and discovered that the size and frequency of olfactory system brain waves were closely linked to breathing patterns.

The concept was later observed in rats, mice and other small animals, though never investigated in humans. Now, Zelano and her team have recorded electrical activity in seven human patients, focussing on three major brain regions – the piriform cortex which processes smells, the hippocampus which forms memories, and the amygdala which processes emotions. Simultaneously, they monitored respiratory rates and found that brain wave oscillations were synchronised with nasal breathing speeds.

Pinpointing the link between breathing and brain function

After identifying the link, the team went about testing whether breathing patterns had the power to influence thought processes. Participants were shown images of facial expressions depicting fear or surprise, then asked to identify each emotion as quickly as possible. Another group was asked to complete a visual memory task. In both cases, participants performed better when breathing in through the nose, than out.  

Given the clear patterns, Zelano concludes that breathing can impact mental function, and influence both emotional recognition and memory recall abilities. She also explains that this could explain why breathing rates increase during high stress situations, when the brain needs to optimise its processing capacities to think and act on the fly.

“When you breathe in… you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus,” explains Zelano. “In a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster [and] as a result you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling,” [This] could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”

The human body is complex and multifaceted, with scientists continually studying its mechanics. For more information on how laboratory work is improving modern medical, ‘A Dosing System for Clearer Vision’ is a must read article spotlighting the latest advancements from leading industrial equipment supplier, Bronkhorst UK.

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