Researchers provide a scientific explanation for the mind benefits of yoga and meditation

For some 2,500 years, yogis have claimed that breathing exercises help the brain focus and keep it young.

Previously though, no direct neurophysiological link between respiration and cognition had been found - until now.

The new research shows for the first time that breathing – a key element of meditation and mindfulness practices – directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.

Breathing, it shows, 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, and, if produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections.

The study, carried out by researchers at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity College, Dublin 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.

Michael Melnychuk, PhD candidate and lead author of the study, explained:  “Practitioners of yoga have claimed for 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. 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.”

“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.

“It 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.”

The findings could also have implications for research into brain ageing.

Ian Robertson, co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity and principal investigator of the study said: “Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators.

“More ‘youthful’ brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks.

“This study provides one more reason for everyone to boost the health of their brain using a whole range of activities ranging from aerobic exercise to mindfulness meditation.”

The study was published in a paper entitled ‘Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama’ in the journal Psychophysiology.