Study: Deep breathing techniques improve focus, keep brain ‘youthful’

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DUBLIN — Most people who have ever attended a yoga class should be familiar with some method of deep breathing. As it turns out, research shows these breathing techniques rooted in ancient wisdom improve our ability to focus. 

A study by researchers at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity found that deep breathing performed in concert with mindfulness or meditation techniques stimulated the release of a brain chemical called noradrenaline, which improves focus and helps the brain to stay “youthful” by growing new connections between cells. 

Deep breathing practices can vary in their purpose and benefits. Practices that focus on breathing or mindfulness and feeling the sensations of breath in the body tend to be beneficial for people whose attention wanders easily. On the other hand, practices that involve controlling respiration are beneficial for people whose arousal levels tend to be too low or too high resulting in feelings of drowsiness or anxiety when taking a test

Findings in this study suggest that noradrenaline is altered by our respiration. Noradrenaline is produced in a part of the brain called the locus coeruleus and is released when we feel stressed, curious, focused, emotionally aroused, or when we exercise. When we have too little noradrenaline, we feel sluggish and less motivated. When we have too much, brain activity is too high and we are unable to focus. The goal is to find a balance where we can think clearly and our emotions are stable. 

“This study has shown that as you breathe in, locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases,” explains lead author Michael Melnychuk, candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, in a statement. “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 optimise your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronized.”

The study included 14 participants and found that those who did well on a task had good breath control and steady attention compared to those who did not. Researchers say their findings provide a deeper understanding of how and why deep breathing meditation practices improve mood, focus and attention.

Further research into this area could help with developing treatment for attention related disorders such as ADHD, traumatic brain injury or for improving cognition in the elderly. 

“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,” says principal investigator Ian Robertson, co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute. “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. 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.”

The study was published in Psychophysiology.

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Jamie Sculley

Dr. Jamie Sculley is a licensed naturopathic doctor practicing in Washington state. She specializes in treating thyroid disease, allergies, digestive issues and anxiety. She writes a weekly blog on these topics which can be found on her website at

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