Deep breathing leads to stress relief, researchers find
04/22/2017 // Frances Bloomfield // Views

A recent study has revealed that deep breathing can help manage stress. Researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine and their colleagues have identified the exact neurons that link breathing and states of mind. These states of mind include attention, relaxation, anxiety, and excitement.

According to the findings of the paper, first published in Science on March 31 of this year, this cluster of neurons is found deep within the brainstem. Called “the pacemaker for breathing” by senior author and Professor of Biochemistry, Dr. Mark Krasnow, this structure was initially discovered in mice in the early '90s by study co-author and Professor of Neurobiology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Dr. Jack Feldman. The pacemaker for breathing, Krasnow told, has a more difficult job than the heart because of the many distinct types of breathing, ranging from yawning to sighing to laughing. “We wondered if different subtypes of neurons within the respiratory control center might be in charge of generating these different types of breath.”

In collaboration with lead author and Faculty Fellow at UCLA, Dr. Kevin Yackle, Krasnow, and Feldman decided to pinpoint which neurons were responsible for the different kinds of breathing. The researchers accomplished this by knocking out some of those neurons in mice and only those neurons, which in turn severed the connection between arousal and the type of breathing, reports They selected these neurons based on previous knowledge of mouse genes that had been associated with breathing.


The mice who no longer had the neurons for faster breathing were found to be “extraordinarily calm”. Yackle has said, “If you put them in a novel environment, which normally stimulates lots of sniffing and exploration. They would just sit around grooming themselves — evidence of what passes for mellowness when you’re a mouse."

Over the course of the study, the researchers observed that these mice continued to display the other varieties of breathing, only at different capacities. They noted that there were less fast “active” breaths and more slow breaths. The researchers deduced that the neurons did not regulate breathing and instead “reported” to another structure in the brainstem, the locus coeruleus. The functions of this structure include waking us from sleep, triggering anxiety and maintaining alertness. This area, the researchers believe, is the reason why people feel calmer when they take slow, deep breaths.

“This study is intriguing because it provides a cellular and molecular understanding of how that might work,” Krasnow has said. “If something’s impairing or accelerating your breathing, you need to know right away. These 175 neurons, which tell the rest of the brain what’s going on, are absolutely critical.”

Feldman then added, “We’re hopeful that understanding this center’s function will lead to therapies for stress, depression and other negative emotions.”

People who suffer from stress-related are sometimes prescribed breathing-controlled exercises by medical practitioners. A similar exercise is a core component of yoga and is known as “pranayama” or the practice of controlling the breath. This control and extension of the breath can help manipulate the body's energies to vitalize or soothe moods.

In a statement to, Krasnow said, "This connection between breathing and higher-order brain function is an idea that's been around for millennia, at least dating back to the time of development of pranayama yoga practices. The way that pranayama yoga and these other approaches try to calm the mind is to simply take control of your breathing by taking... slow... regular... breaths."

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