Researchers at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York have uncovered how breathing states trigger brain networks associated with attention, mood and body awareness.
For years the brain stem has been considered the breath’s epicenter. Now, a breakthrough study in the Journal of Neurophysiology finds that neural networks responsible for attention, mood and body awareness are affected by different types of breathing.
Paced breathing involves inhaling and exhaling according to a set rhythm. For example, you might inhale for 4 counts, exhale for 6 and repeat. The strategy of focusing on the timing and pace of breathing is commonly used in yoga, meditation and therapies for reducing stress. Even though prior research shows that paced breathing can focus attention, and regulate the nervous system, we have yet to understand whether it affects how the brain works.
To answer the question, researchers at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research recruited 6 adults with epilepsy not successful treated with medication who were undergoing intracranial EEG monitoring. This involves placing electrodes directly onto the brain to record electrical activity and see where seizures originate. While being monitored, these adults took part in several breathing experiments.
In the first, they rested with their eyes open for 8 minutes while breathing normally. They then sped up their breath rate for 2 and one half minutes while breathing through the nose, then slowed back down to regular breathing. This occurred for 8 rounds.
Second, they were asked to count how many times they inhaled and exhaled during a 2 minute interval, and report how many breaths they’d taken. Researchers monitored how many breaths participants took during each interval, noting when their responses were correct and incorrect.
Lastly, participants were asked to focus on a video screen containing circles and different fixed locations while wearing a breathing monitor. They were asked to press one of 4 keyboard keys as quickly as possible when they saw a circle turn from black to white.
Researchers then looked to see how participant’s breathing rates varied across different tasks, and noted whether their brain activity changed depending on which task was undertaken.
Breathing involves an entire network of brain regions, not just the brain stem.
What they discovered is that breathing affects brain regions far more widely than previously thought. For example, when participants were asked to breathe faster, researchers saw greater activation in a network of structures including the premotor caudal-medial frontal, orbitofrontal and motor cortex, as well as the insula, superior gyrus and amygdala. This means that breathing involves an entire network of brain regions, not just the brain stem.
In addition to learning that breathing involves more than the brain stem, they found that when the breath speeds up it activates the amygdala, or emotion center. This suggests that a rapid breathing may trigger brain states similar to those found during anxiety or fear. Indeed, other studies have found that people tend to be more attuned to fear when asked to breathe more rapidly. Conversely, it may be possible to reduce fear and anxiety by slowing down the breath.
The study also identified a strong connection between participant’s intentional breathing and activation of the insula, a brain region involved in regulating the autonomic nervous system and body awareness. Prior studies link focused breathing to posterior insular activation in humans, suggesting that paying particular attention to the breath may increase awareness of one’s bodily states – a key skill learned in practices like yoga and meditation.
Lastly, researchers found that the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain involved in moment-to-moment awareness, as well as the insula were more active when participants accurately tracked their breath. This means attention may be heightened while performing exercises that focus on the breath.
All told, the results of this study support a link between breathing and widespread brain activity, such that particular types of breathing (rapid, intentional, and attentional) stimulate brain structures involved in thinking, feeling and behavior. This raises the possibility that particular breathing strategies may be used to help people to manage stress, anxiety and other mood disorders.