Another piece of ancient wisdom is being proven right using modern science, this one concerning the benefits of breathing exercises on mental well-being. Researchers have found a neurophysiological link between breathing and our ability to focus our minds.

The claims of breathing exercises being good for us go back a few thousand years, to the earliest practitioners of Buddhist meditation and pranayama. Their cognitive benefits have been catalogued over the last several years as well, and they include improvements in focus and attention, as well the ability to handle stress, emotional positivity, and even general psychological well-being.

However, for the first time, researchers from Trinity College Dublin have identified the process in the brain that leads to this effect on the mind through respiration, and it has to do with a hormone called noradrenaline. This chemical messenger in the brain is produced in the locus coeruleus, a part of the brainstem. Specifically, noradrenaline is released during a number of states of emotional arousal, and also helps grow new connections in the brain, if produced at the right levels.

Michael Melnychuk, a PhD candidate at Trinity and lead author of the study, explained in a statement Thursday: “Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 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.”

In their study, researchers found greater synchronization between breathing patterns and attention among participants who showed better focus during tasks which required it, than among those participants who displayed poor focus.

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

Based on their findings, the researchers think it may be possible to develop non-pharmacological therapies for people who have trouble with their attention and focus, or even to help older people who have cognitive problems.

Ian Robertson from Trinity, who was principal investigator of the study, said in the statement: “Our findings could have particular implications for research into brain ageing. 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. Our research offers one possible reason for this — using our breath to control one of the brain’s natural chemical messengers, noradrenaline, which in the right ‘dose’ helps the brain grow new connections between cells.”

Titled “Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama,” the paper was published in the journal Psychophysiology.