Is breathing in a certain way all it takes to sharpen the mind? While cognitive benefits have often been associated with breath-focused meditation, medical research could not identify a strong, direct link.
But for the first time, researchers from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, explained the direct neurophysiological link between yogic breathing practices and cognition. The new study titled "Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama" was published in the journal Psychophysiology on April 22.
"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, where noradrenaline is made," said lead author Michael Melnychuk, a Ph.D. candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience.
Noradrenaline is a hormone which is produced in excess when a person is stressed and produced at insufficient levels when a person is sluggish, he said, adding that both scenarios negatively affect the brain's ability to focus. "There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking, and memory are much clearer."
The locus coeruleus, a structure in the brain, is the main source of noradrenaline. It plays an important role in arousal by waking the body from sleep and maintaining alertness. Experts have also stated that neurons in this region "exhibit rhythmic behavior whose timing is correlated with that of breathing."
According to Melnychuk, the new study showed that locus coeruleus activity slightly increases when a person breathes in and decreases when a person breathes out. "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 optimize your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronized," he explained.
While this benefit can emerge from deep breathing practices such as pranayama, mindfulness meditation can be the most beneficial as it also emphasizes a focus on breathing and eliminating mind-wandering tendencies. Evidence supported that the observation and regulation of breath as a part of yogic practices could help alter the level of arousal in the body, the authors stated.
They added that the new study had implications for research on brain aging, suggesting that long-term meditators experience lesser signs of aging (i.e. losing lesser mass) in their brains. This could help strengthen networks in the brain and reduce the risk of conditions like dementia.
Findings from more research could also assist in the design of therapies for people who face problems related to attention, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) patients, those who have suffered traumatic brain injury and older adults who are at risk of cognitive decline.