Pranayama Neurons

The way that pranayama yoga and these other approaches try to calm the mind is to simply take control of your breathing by taking… slow… regular… breaths

“Yoga is a derivative of Indian ancient science, but the physical practice and way of life has become very popular in Western countries. The physical yoga discipline includes asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), and dhyana (meditation). Tools to withdraw the senses (pratyahara), concentrate the mind (dharana), and develop unwavering awareness (dhyana) manifest from dedicated yoga practice…” Meditative and pranayama practices impinge on our physiological, emotional and even on our attentional brain modules which depend on the pivotal roles of the Locus coeruleus (the blue spot in our respiratory centre), being the hub of a complex coupled system.


“Yackle and his team hypothesize that as the mice breathe rapidly and go on exploring their pranayama neurons trigger the alertness area. They believe that this same mechanism may be present in humans: as they meditate and slow down their breathing they deactivate their ‘pranayama neurons’, which in turn tone down their alertness and contribute to slow down their stress level. So the idea is whether deep and slow breathing can be used to de-stress people, to diminish panic attacks and combat anxiety?”


When a baby is born, its breathing and heart start to function automatically, and it will open its urinary balder regularly without any control. As the child grows up, he will be trained to control the bladder, but will have no control on his heart. And later if he decides to do some yoga and meditation he will learn to control his breathing by using specialized areas in his brain to decide about the duration of his inspiration and expiration, though stopping his respiration perpetually would be beyond him.

In India, Prana was long ago thought of as a form of vital universal energy (the life-giver) coming from food and the breath. People empirically discovered that if they prevent someone from breathing that person would die. Hence the importance of respiration, which was gradually disciplined into different forms.

For millennia some sages have realized that one of the factors that leads to misunderstanding and quarrel between people is emotional and precipitate decision-making. At the same time they might have noticed that such fast-track thinking was always associated with some form of rapid breathing. So what if they could control breathing, would the excitement and mental boiling coupled with it be toned down – hence preventing emotional and irrational decisions? That was what may have happened in the past.

Religious practices aiding, the hermits and ascetics decided to evolve physical and mental exercises associated with breath control – prana — to rein in the mental forces. So yoga practices evolved, along with these three major components: physical exercise, pranayama, and meditation. For many it involves chanting of mantra also, incorporated smoothly into these three-tier practices, with the brain and the body influencing each other mutually, while control of inspiration and expiration serves as an intermediate between the two.

Yoga, meditation and pranayama have become so important and resulted in so many benefits for the individuals that, for the past 6 or 7 decades, they have attracted the attention of westerners, and who says westerners says scientific investigations of these Indian practices. In fact, many research papers have extolled the advantages of pranayama seen in its practitioners, who seem to suffer significantly less cognitive decline with age.

Eastern and Western concepts

Broadly we can say that the East saw in the regulation of breathing a holistic process to stimulate one’s vital energy, which we in modern times have come to realize to be the function of oxygen in the air. A lack of it leads to death within three minutes.

But the West soon realized that the human respiratory system does something more than supplying oxygen – it functions as a ventilator to remove and excrete carbon dioxide, a waste product of respiration.

Doctors, more so anaesthetists, see patients in the Operation Theatre who have been sedated develop slower respirations, leading to a fall in the oxygen concentration in their blood to below the 90% level. Soon, however, their breathing automatically picks up and improves their oxygen above that critical level. Why? This is because as we sleep our breathing slows down. As less carbon dioxide is excreted, it accumulates and forms acids which stimulate our breathing once again. As we do so we replenish our oxygen and at the same time excrete our excess carbon dioxide. Its falling level slows down our breathing, thereby setting a feedback mechanism.

It is well known that ‘attention’ lends itself to “regular oscillations between task-focused and mind-wandering states” (Fox & Raichle, 2007). So we discover that our breathing which is automatic, and keeps us alive while we sleep, is mostly under the patronage of our carbon dioxide. And we discover that pranayama plays a pivotal role in its regulation. However hard and deep healthy people breathe, they won’t improve their oxygen level, but they will regulate their carbon dioxide level via the Locus coeruleus (LC) mentioned above. As a consequence of its effect on attention, respiration and autonomic activity, the Locus Coeruleus is being hypothesized to play an important role in the effects on meditation (Craigmyle-2013).

Here, in pranayama, we use our volition, the conscious ability of our brain to impose the rate of breathing while we practise yoga and meditation. By taking deep, slow breaths through the nose and expiring through the mouth we have a complete control on our respiration. It has been discovered that such respiration sends chemical signals to the LC which influences the release of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline (NA) from it. NA is like the orchestra of our active life, keeping us alert, ready to move about to protect ourselves. Thus, if we want to tone down this active aspect of our life we could practise pranayama and remain calm, less active and more peaceful.

The Neurons

According to an issue of the The New Scientist of 2017, Kevin Yackle of the University of California has dubbed some 350 distinctive brain cells found in the respiratory centre of mice as “pranayama neurons”. On destroying these cells, thereby decreasing the respiratory rate, mice were found to lose their alertness and become unusually calm; they stopped exploring their environment and gave up sniffing around, while exaggerating their grooming activity. Besides contributing to respiratory rate regulation, these cells are also connected to a nearby area known to control alertness. Hence Yackle and his team hypothesize that as the mice breathe rapidly and go on exploring their pranayama neurons trigger the alertness area. They believe that this same mechanism may be present in humans: as they meditate and slow down their breathing they deactivate their ‘pranayama neurons’, which in turn tone down their alertness and contribute to slow down their stress level. So the idea is whether deep and slow breathing can be used to de-stress people, to diminish panic attacks and combat anxiety?

“This connection between breathing and higher-order brain function is an idea that’s been around for millennia,” says Mark Krasnow, Professor of Biochemistry at Stanford University School of Medicine and an author on the study, “at least dating back to the time of development of pranayama yoga practices. The way that pranayama yoga and these other approaches try to calm the mind is to simply take control of your breathing by taking… slow… regular… breaths.”
With this in mind, Krasnow, Yackle and his colleagues have named these neurons and their corresponding pathway after the ancient practice: the ‘pranayama neurons’ and ‘pranayama pathway’.

 


* Published in print edition on 22 June 2018

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