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Meditation, Breathing Exercises May Help Improve Brain Health

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Researchers from Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute in Dublin dissected the neurophysiological link between breathing exercise and brain health. They provide a scientific explanation of how exactly pranayama, yoga, and mindfulness improve people’s concentration.   ( Nick Tininenko | Getty Images for American Express )

Researchers from Dublin identify the link between the nervous system and concentration to present scientific evidence supporting claims that breathing exercises promote brain health.

Specifically, the team provided a scientific explanation of how the neurophysiological mechanisms take place while engaged in ancient meditation practices or most commonly known today as pranayama, yoga breathing exercise, and mindfulness.

Their initial finding could help in the development of non-pharmacological therapies for people suffering from attention problems such as ADHD and traumatic brain injury. It could also offer deeper insights on how the elderly could maintain their youthful minds.

Locus Coeruleus, Noradrenaline and Breathing Exercises

Michael Melnychuk, the lead author of the study and Ph.D. candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, says that for some 2,500 years, yoga and meditation practitioners have been claiming that breathing exercises promote cognitive benefits, particularly the ability to focus on certain tasks.

To support these claims, his team measured breathing, reaction time, and brain activity in the portion of the brain called the locus coeruleus. The researchers observed that as a person breathes in, the activity in his or her locus coeruleus is increasing slightly and as the person breathes out the activity also decreases.

The locus coeruleus is where noradrenaline is produced. Too much of or too little of noradrenaline in the brain affects the person's ability to focus. When stressed out, a person produces an excessive amount of noradrenaline. On the other hand, when a person is feeling sluggish, he or she produces less noradrenaline.

For this reason, it is important for a person to strike that balance in the supply of noradrenaline in one's brain and the key to achieve this is through learning proper breathing technique usually taught in yoga, mindfulness, and other similar meditation classes.

 "It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimize your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronized," Melnychuk explained in their study published in the journal Psychophysiology on April 22.

Brain Aging

Ian Robertson, the principal investigator of the study and co-director of the Global Brain Institute at Trinity, said their findings could also contribute insights to further research into brain aging. He highlights that brains of long-term meditators lose less mass compared to the brains of other elderly.

"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," Robertson said.

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