How breathing shapes our brain
Summary: Breathing is not only essential to keep us alive, it also affects our emotions, attention and the way our brain processes the world around us.
Source: Aarhus University
“Inhale… Exhale…” Or: “take a deep breath and count to ten.” The calming effect of breathing in stressful situations is a concept that most of us have encountered before. Now Professor Micah Allen from the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University has come a step closer to understanding how the very act of breathing shapes our brains.
The researchers synthesized results from more than a dozen rodent, monkey, and human brain imaging studies and used them to propose a new computational model that explains how our breathing affects the brain’s expectations.
“What we found is that, in many different types of tasks and animals, the brain’s rhythms are closely related to the rhythm of our breathing. We are more sensitive to the outside world when we inhale, while the brain shuts down more when we exhale. It also aligns with the way some extreme sports use breathing, for example professional shooters are trained to pull the trigger at the end of exhalation,” explains Professor Micah Allen.
The study shows that breathing is more than just something we do to stay alive, Micah Allen explains.
“It suggests that the brain and breathing are closely intertwined in a way that goes beyond survival, that it actually affects our emotions, our attention and the way we process the external world. Our model suggests that there is a common mechanism in the brain that links the rhythm of breathing to these events.”
Breathing can affect our mental health
Understanding how breathing shapes our brain, and thus our mood, thoughts and behavior, is an important goal in order to better prevent and treat mental illness.
“Difficulty breathing is associated with a very large increase in the risk of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. We know that breathing, respiratory diseases and psychiatric disorders are closely related.
“Our study points to the possibility that the next treatments for these disorders may be found in developing new ways to re-align brain-body rhythms, rather than treating either in isolation,” explains Micah Allen.
Stabilizing our mind through breathing is a well-known and used tactic in many traditions such as yoga and meditation.
A new study sheds light on how the brain makes this possible. This suggests that there are three pathways in the brain that control this interaction between breathing and brain activity.
It also suggests that our breathing pattern makes the brain more “excitable”, meaning neurons are more likely to fire during certain periods of breathing.
New research is coming
The new study gives researchers a new target for future research, for example, in people with respiratory disorders or mood disorders, and Micah Allen and his group have already started new projects based on the study.
“We have a number of ongoing projects that are developing and testing different parts of the model we have proposed. Ph.D. Student Malthe Brændholt is conducting innovative brain imaging studies in humans to try to understand how breathing in the brain affects different types of emotional and visual perception,” says Micah Allen.
The team is also collaborating with the pulmonology team at Aarhus University Hospital, where tools developed in the lab are being used to understand whether a person suffering from long-term covid may have disturbances in the coordination of breathing and the brain. And more projects are coming, says Micah Allen.
“We will use a combination of human and animal neuroimaging to better understand how breathing affects the brain, and we will also investigate how different drugs affect the interaction between breathing and the brain. We’d also like to someday study how lifestyle factors like stress, sleep, and even things like winter swimming affect breath-brain interactions. We are very excited to continue this research,” says Micah Allen.
About this news about breathing and neuroscience research
Original Research: Closed access.
“Respiratory rhythms of the predictive mind” Micah Allen et al. Psychological examination
Respiratory rhythms of the predictive mind
Respiratory rhythms sustain biological life, governing the homeostatic exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. However, until recently, the impact of breathing on the brain was largely overlooked.
However, new evidence shows that the act of breathing exerts a fundamental, rhythmic influence on perception, emotion and cognition, mainly through direct modulation of neuronal oscillations.
Here, we synthesized these findings to motivate a novel predictive coding model of respiratory brain coupling, in which breathing rhythmically modulates local and global neural gain, to optimize cognitive and affective processing.
Our model further explains how respiratory rhythms interact with functional connectome topology and we highlight key implications for computational psychiatry of impaired respiratory and interoceptive reasoning.
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