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Apr 03, 2017 10:32 AM EDT

Stanford Scientists Finds Out How Respiratory Nerve Cells Affect States Of Mind

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Scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine and their colleagues have identified the group of neurons responsible for connecting breathing to states of mind. The study figured out why deep breathing results to tranquility.

The study was published last week in the journal "Science," with Mark Krasnow, MD, PhD, professor of biochemistry, as the senior author. Former Stanford graduate student, Kevin Yackle, MD, PhD, who is now a faculty fellow at the University of California - San Francisco, is the lead author.

Breathing-control exercises are often prescribed by medical practitioners for patients with stress disorders. The practice of pranayama, which is controlling breath in order to transform an individual's consciousness from a frantic state to a relaxed one, is a key component of all types of yoga.

In Stanford Medicine News Center's official website, Krasnow said that the study is intriguing because it demonstrates how respiration and states of mind work together at a cellular and molecular level.

The group of neurons linking respiration to relaxation, attention, excitement and anxiety is found deep in the brainstem, located in an area deemed by Krasnow as the respiratory pacemaker. This area was found in mice by the study's co-author Jack Feldman, a professor of neurobiology at UCLA. A similar structure has been recognized in humans.

Krasnow added that the respiratory pacemaker has a more difficult job than its counterpart in the heart. This is because the latter has a one-dimensional, slow-to-fast continuum while the former is responsible for different types of breathing: regular, excited, sighing, yawning, gasping, sleeping, laughing and sobbing.

The researchers hypothesized whether different subtypes of neurons could have been in charge of generating the different types of breath. Yackle combed through public databases to collate a list of genes that are activated in the part of the mouse brainstem where the breathing control center, called the pre-Bötzinger complex or preBötC, is located.

According to MedicalXpress, the researchers found that the neurons were spying on breathing and reports it to another structure in the brainstem. They proved that the preBötC neurons project to the locus coeruleus and activate its long-distance projections, which promote brainwide arousal.

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