We know it’s scientifically proven that various forms of yoga and long-term meditation improve focus. But new research is shedding some positive light on the neurophysiological effects of the breathing used during meditation that researchers call, controlled breathing.

The study

A new study at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin, Ireland, is helping us understand how and why some neurological reactions occur as the result of breathing-centered meditation practices. The study which was led by the researcher, Michael Melnychuk, Ph.D., was published in the journal, Psychophysiology, last week.

According to the study, controlled breathing affects the levels of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline, a stress hormone that affects our heart by causing it to beat faster. It’s also the chemical that causes our pupils to dilate when we’re excited or see something pleasurable. Melnychuk calls noradrenaline, “the all-purpose action system in the brain.”

The researchers further state that this neurotransmitter creates new connections between brain cells when it is secreted in the right amounts. This prompted the team to research more deeply the area of the brain called the locus coeruleus which is the region where the noradrenaline is produced and which is known to be involved in both attention and breathing.

Using neuroimaging techniques, they examined the effects of breathing on attention by measuring the pupil dilation of participants as they performed cognitive tasks requiring great focus. Then they monitored and calculated the participants’ reaction time and breathing and the activity it caused in the locus coeruleus of the brain area. They discovered that activity in the locus coeruleus increased as the participants breathed in and then decreased as they breathed out. The two were inextricably connected.

“This means,” said Melnychuk, “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 optimize your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronized.”

An imbalance of noradrenaline causes problems with focusing. We can’t focus when we’re stressed, because it’s the result of producing too much noradrenaline. And the opposite is true as well: when we’re tired or feeling sluggish, we produce too little noradrenaline which also hinders our ability to focus. The researchers feel their findings explain why meditators who practice controlled breathing report increased focus and have healthier looking brains. Their research finds evidence that endorses a strong connection between breath-centered practices and a steadiness of mind. The findings could be useful for healthy seniors who want to keep their minds agile as they age and even for treating people with attention deficit disorder.

Senior investigator Ian Robertson, the co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity 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.”

OK. Relax. And Breathe.


1. Why mindful breathing keeps your brain healthy and young. Medical News Today.