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HOW DOES OUR BRAIN “BREATHE”?

HOW DOES OUR BRAIN "BREATHE"?
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Photo: informost.com

A hundred years ago, Nobel laureate Edgar Adrian managed to establish a close relationship between breathing and brain wave activity by studying ordinary hedgehogs. Further, it was found in the brains of other animals and humans. The breathing process only looks monotonous. In fact, none of our 15 breaths per minute is like another.

Breathing through the nose affects the activity of areas of the brain associated with emotions, memory and smells. For ancient cultures, breathing was directly related to the quality of life and thought. Modern research only confirms the centuries-old wisdom of our ancestors.

 

BREATHING CONTROLS OUR MEMORY

 

Scientists have long figured out that in a dream our brain is by no means idle, but is engaged in the consolidation of memory. When information is transferred from short-term storage to long-term storage, different parts of the brain exchange information. The journal Nature Communications published an article by Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich stating that the rhythm of this exchange is set and structured by our breathing.

Experiments with mice have shown that this is an ideal metronome for the brain, since exhalation and inhalation are constantly repeated and, moreover, do not depend on the work of the memory centers themselves. Breathing organizes the activity of neurons in the sleeping brain, increases and decreases their excitability in the hippocampus and in the visual cortex, in the prefrontal cortex and in the thalamus, in the amygdala and in the nucleus accumbens…

Thus, German scientists once again proved that breathing affects higher nervous activity. It was previously established that fear and memory are subordinated to the rhythm of breathing – they increase on inhalation and weaken on exhalation. And deep slow breathing, acting through special neurons of the respiratory center, helps to relieve emotional arousal.

 

BREATHING CONTROLS OUR ATTENTION

 

For the first time scientists from Trinity College in Dublin undertook to explain the neuropsychological connection between breathing and attention. The results of their study, published in the magazine Psychophysiology, say the same thing that yoga practitioners have been saying for more than 2,500 years: meditation with a focus on breathing positively affects various cognitive processes and reduces emotional lability.

It is known that stressful situations stimulate excessive synthesis of norepinephrine in the bluish spot of the brain, which sharply impairs attention. Therefore, scientists simultaneously measured the breathing rates of the participants in the experiment, reaction time and brain activity. It turned out that the spot activity increases on inhalation and decreases on exhalation. This suggests that the indicators of attention are influenced by respiration, and it can be improved by focusing on the depth and frequency of breathing.

However, yogis and Buddhists, who have chosen breathing as an object of meditation, have known it for a long time. Such techniques can help slow down the aging process of the brain. With age, the mass of the brain decreases, but people who practice meditation slow down the degradation of the brain .

 

“SYNDROME OF THE CURSE OF ONDINE”

 

Ondine is a water spirit in the lower mythology of the peoples of Europe, like a Slavic mermaid. An ancient German legend tells of the knight Gulbrandt, who, during his wanderings, came across a fishing house where the daughter of the sea lord, Ondine, lived. As it should be in such fabulous cases, they fell in love with each other. To be together, everyone took an oath: Ondine refused the gift of immortality, and the knight swore in front of the altar that every breath that begins the morning awakening would be a guarantee of fidelity to her beloved.

What happened next is easy to guess. The knight cheated on Ondine, she found out about it and claimed her husband’s oath literally. While Gulbrandt was awake and remembered the oath, he lived and breathed, but when he fell asleep, he lost his breath and died. Of course, in such a state, it became extremely difficult for a loving knight to cheat on his wife … An eerie legend inspired Hans Christian Andersen to write the fairy tale The Little Mermaid, and Walt Disney to make a cartoon based on it. In these stories, unlike the real legend, the heroes all end happily, without fatal outcomes.

But, in addition to writers and filmmakers, it turned out that doctors are also well oriented in European mythology. In 1962, American doctors remembered this legend. After studying cases of death in a dream from cessation of breathing, scientists proposed to call this phenomenon Ondine’s curse syndrome. In the waking state, the patient has regular deep breathing, but as soon as he falls asleep, it stops, as if someone had pulled the cord out of the socket. Fortunately, such cases are very rare.

 

WHAT IS BEHIND THIS “CURSE”?

 

The main respiratory center of a person is located where the brain passes into the spinal cord. It provides a uniform breathing rhythm, which is normally from 10 to 15 breaths per minute, including during sleep. That is why any damage to the cervical spine can be life-threatening. The center regulates the body’s need for air by reading information from chemoreceptors – sensors on the walls of the aorta, muscles and medulla oblongata respond to carbon dioxide levels and changes in pH.

In addition, the respiratory center receives nerve impulses from other areas of the brain. The respiratory rate changes depending on the nature of the physical or emotional load in such a way as to remove more carbon dioxide from the body, and “load” more oxygen. At the same time, the latter worries our medulla oblongata immeasurably less than the removal of waste. The main task is to provide pH indicators at which the system works stably.

 

YOU WILL ALWAYS LOSE YOUR BRAIN…

 

The brain controls both voluntary and autonomous breathing, but different areas of it are responsible for this processes. The cerebral cortex is responsible for voluntary control of breathing, while the medulla oblongata is responsible for autonomous control of breathing. Inhalation is autonomous, exhalation is arbitrary – this is almost always a passive process, which normally lasts 2 times longer than inhalation. The autonomous component of breath control is the dominant one. Try to hold your breath as much as possible – you will still lose to the medulla oblongata, which turns on the mode of active efforts to exhale so as not to “get out of the schedule”.

Similarly, during sleep, the medulla oblongata alerts the cerebral cortex if there are emergency situations that require instant awakening. Unfortunately, in patients with Ondine’s curse, the medulla oblongata that controls involuntary breathing during sleep is destroyed. And it can lead to sudden death in a dream.

You can read more about this and much more in the book Breath Taking by pulmonologist Kai-Michael Beh.

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