The yogis are right! Meditation and breathing exercises can help keep your mind sharp

A new study by Trinity College Dublin researchers shows that breathing – a key element of meditation and mindfulness practices – directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline.

This chemical messenger is released when we are challenged, curious, exercised, focused or emotionally aroused. If produced at the right levels, it helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain ‘fertiliser’.

In other words, the way we breathe directly affects the chemistry of our brain in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.

Breathe for focus

Researchers found that participants who focused well while undertaking a task that demanded a lot of attention had greater synchronisation between their breathing patterns and their attention than those who had poor focus.

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The authors believe that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilise the attention and boost brain health.

The way we breathe directly affects the chemistry of our brain in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health

The sweet spot for clear thinking

“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,” says lead author Michael Melnychuk, PhD candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity.

“Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can’t focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer,” explains Melnychuk.

Related: Meditation boosts brain power even years later

This could help people with ADHD

“This study has shown that as you breathe in locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases. Put simply, this means that our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration.”

Melnychuk adds that is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimise your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronised.”

Further research could help with the development of non-pharmacological therapies for people with attention compromised conditions such as ADHD and traumatic brain injury and in supporting cognition in older people.

Source: Trinity College Dublin via

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