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Scientists find a remarkable connection between breathing and memory

[Sept. 22, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

Breathing woman
New groundbreaking research uncovers how our breathing patterns can either augment or impair our ability to form memories. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

New groundbreaking research uncovers how our breathing patterns can either augment or impair our ability to form memories. In an era where the quest for holistic wellness has led many to meditation and mindfulness, our breathing has emerged as an instrumental force.

This breakthrough not only enhances our understanding of the intricate connection between the respiratory system and the brain but also heralds promising avenues for the treatment of brain disorders and mental health conditions.


Medullary Respiratory Activity: The Breath of Insight

Every spontaneous inhalation and exhalation we take is governed by our body's medullary respiratory activity. This involuntary breathing behavior is controlled by the medulla oblongata, a critical region of the brain tasked with managing respiratory functions. Within this section, the Pre-Bötzinger Complex (PreBötC) – a small cluster of neurons – assumes pivotal importance.

As aptly stated by neuroscientist Nozomu Nakamura of Hyogo Medical University in Japan: "Breathing is a fundamental action in life support in mammals. Although details of respiratory function on brain states remain unclear, recent studies suggest that respiration may play an important role during online brain states."


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To probe this hypothesis, Nakamura and his team undertook an experimental study. By manipulating the PreBötC in genetically engineered mice, they revealed some astonishing findings. When the mice's breathing was temporarily halted, their capacity to form crucial memories significantly diminished, particularly during tasks involving object recognition and fear conditioning.

Interestingly, these pauses in breathing weren't inconsequential to the brain's overall function. They influenced the activity of the hippocampus, a region crucial for both long-term and short-term memory storage, especially during the process of memory recall. When these mice were subjected to irregular breathing patterns, their memory performance notably improved. However, slowing their breathing deteriorated their ability to recall.


Linking Breathing Transitions and Memory Performance

A preceding research endeavor by the same team had made noteworthy revelations. They found that an expiratory-to-inspiratory (EI) transition or an inspiratory onset during memory tasks could impair memory retrieval in humans. Such a transition from exhaling to inhaling either at the onset or mid-task led to diminished speed and accuracy in recalling information.

Drawings showing the PreBötzinger complex (PreBötC), prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus. AAV-Ef1α-DIO-hChR2(H134R)-EYFP was injected bilaterally into the PreBötC (6.70 mm caudal to bregma, red) in Vgat-Cre+ mice and fiber-optic cannulas were placed bilaterally in the dorsal region. (CREDIT: Nature Communications)

A subsequent study fortified this claim by employing brain scans. These scans established a correlation between subpar memory performance and the deactivation of the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) – a multifunctional brain region responsible for assimilating information from internal and external environments and determining the suitable reactions.


Drawing parallels, the researchers postulated that specific breathing patterns, including the EI transition, might reinitialize the TPJ's processing. This reset might be a contributing factor in the observed memory performance variances in the mice. However, these implications need further validation, particularly in human subjects, pointing to an exciting direction for upcoming studies.

Drawings (adapted from ref. 33) and diagrams showing a transparent acrylic box surrounded by walls (a) and the conditioning paradigm (b, see “Methods”). c Each epoch alternated between offset time blocks (light orange zone) and onset time blocks (tones, light green zone). (CREDIT: Nature Communications)

The Broader Implications

While the nexus between breathing and the brain isn't novel – considering breathing exercises have been long recognized for their calming effects – this research introduces a fresh perspective. As the study team suggests, intentional modifications in our breathing patterns could serve therapeutic purposes beyond relaxation.


Elucidating this, Nakamura remarks, "The determination of detailed roles of respiration and molecular mechanisms in the brain is a subject to future research to understand effects of stress tolerance." He further emphasizes, "The way of breathing manipulation and application of breathing exercises will be crucial for treatment and therapy of depression and neuropsychiatric disorders."

This remarkable research, published in Nature Communications, not only sheds light on the intricate pathways between our respiratory system and brain but also proposes transformative treatments for a spectrum of brain and mental health disorders, thus emphasizing the power of breath.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


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