Researchers at Trinity College Dublin have uncovered a neurophysiological link between respiration and cognition, offering a fascinating anatomical explanation behind the long-held connection between ancient breathing-based meditation practices and cognitive benefits.

For centuries, breathing-focused meditation practices have suggested that certain breathing techniques can result in a variety of beneficial outcomes, including positive emotions and increased cognitive focus. It is only recently that researchers have begun to uncover the physiological explanations behind these anecdotal reports.

This latest study from Trinity College Dublin has uncovered the first neurophysiological connection linking respiration and attentional systems in the brain. The research homed in on a small area in the brain called the locus coeruleus, which is responsible for producing a hormone and neurotransmitter called noradrenaline.

"Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain," explains lead author on the study Michael Melnychuk. "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."

The study found that neurons in the locus coeruleus are chemosensitive, responsive to CO2 levels that vary according to different respiratory phases. The subsequent hypothesis from the research is that there is a relationship between attentional performance and respiration that is modulated via the locus coeruleus.

"This study has shown that as you breathe in locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases," says Melnychuk. "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 optimize your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronized."

This intriguing neurophysiological connection between respiration and attention raises some exciting therapeutic possibilities suggesting breathing could be a way to directly modulate levels of noradrenaline. The study points to further research that could result in non-pharmacological treatments for different patients with attentional compromised conditions. This may include children with ADHD or elderly populations suffering from dementia.

The research was published in the journal Psychophysiology.