Researchers Explain Neurophysiological Link Between Breathing and Attention

Meditation and ancient breath-focused practices, such as pranayama, have long been known to improve our ability to concentrate. A recent study by researchers at Trinity College Dublin and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity, explains for the first time the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention.

Breath-focused meditation and yogic breathing practices have several known cognitive benefits, such as increased ability to focus, improved arousal levels, more positive emotions, decreased mind wandering and emotional reactivity, along with many others. However, no direct neurophysiological link between respiration and cognition has been suggested till date.

The study has been published in a paper entitled “Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama” in the journal Psychophysiology. The research findings has revealed for the first time that breathing which is a key component of meditation and mindfulness practices directly influences the levels of a natural chemical messenger called noradrenaline in the brain.

Noradrenaline is released when we are challenged, curious, worked up, focused or emotionally aroused. If it is produced at optimum levels, it helps the brain grow new connections. In other words, the way we breathe, directly impacts the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.

The study findings revealed that participants who focused well while undertaking a task that demanded a lot of attention had greater synchronization between their breathing patterns and their attention, than those who had poor focus. The authors of the study believe that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilize attention and boost brain health.

The lead author of the study, Michael Melnychuk, a PhD candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity, explicated: “Yoga practitioners 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 cannot focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we cannot focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.”

The study has demonstrated that as we breathe in, locus coeruleus activity increases slightly, and as we breathe out, it decreases. In simple words, this means that our attention is affected by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. By concentrating on and regulating our breathing, it is possible to optimize our attention level and similarly, by focusing on our attention level, our breathing becomes more synchronized.

The research provides deeper scientific understanding of the neurophysiological mechanisms which underlie ancient meditation practices. Further research could help with the development of non-pharmacological therapies for individuals with attention compromised conditions such as ADHD and traumatic brain injury and in supporting cognition in older people.

Ian Robertson, Co-Director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity and Principal Investigator of the study added: “Yogis and Buddhist practitioners have long considered the breath an especially suitable object for meditation. It is believed that by observing the breath and regulating it in precise ways—a practice known as pranayama—changes in arousal, attention, and emotional control that can be of great benefit to the meditator are realized. Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centered practices and a steadiness of mind.”

According to Robertson, these findings have noteworthy implications for research into brain aging. 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. This research offers one possible reason for this—by regulating our breath we can control noradrenaline, which in the right amount would help the brain grow new connections between cells. This study provides one more reason for everyone to boost their brain health using a whole range of activities ranging from aerobic exercise to mindfulness meditation.

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Is Coffee Addiction an Addiction for Real?

A recent study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology provides insight into what can help kick caffeine habit. The researcher recruited 48 heavy caffeine users, consuming at least 270 mg per day of coffee, for the study to examine how knowing about dose reductions influence self-assessments of withdrawal severity, and therefore, how much of the caffeine withdrawal process was real versus imagined.

The researcher randomly assigned participants into two groups and put both the groups on the same caffeine reduction plan over a 5-day period. On the first day, participants were given one cup of coffee in the morning, and one in the afternoon with a total of 300 mg caffeine. The procedures on the second, third, fourth and fifth day was similar to the first, except that caffeine doses were gradually reduced (200 mg, 100 mg, 0 mg, and 0 mg, respectively).

However, only one of the two groups received accurate information about the caffeine reduction schedule. The other was rather (mis)informed that full 300 mg of caffeine was given to them on the first, second, and third days of the experiment and 0 mg on the fourth and fifth days.

Using the Caffeine Withdrawal Symptom Questionnaire (CWSQ), the researchers measured caffeine withdrawal symptoms every day. CWSQ is a 23-item scale that measures symptoms such as low alertness/difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances, fatigue/drowsiness, low sociability/motivation to work, flu-like feelings, nausea/upset stomach, and headache.

The respective CWSQ scores of the two groups were then compared. The researchers had predicted that caffeine withdrawal symptoms would be more in line with the information the participants received about the doses, and not the actual doses they were given. Interestingly, this was exactly what the finding revealed too.

The group that was given correct information about their dose reduction schedule exhibited caffeine withdrawal symptoms steadily increasing throughout the multi-day test period. On the other hand, the misinformed group showed flat-line CWSQ scores for the first three days and a big uptick on day four. The researchers opine, “Given that they received identical doses of caffeine, these day-to-day differences in reported withdrawal can only be explained by differences in expectancies.”

Unfortunately, however, which one of the two groups was more accurate in assessing their actual withdrawal symptoms, cannot be known for certain. It is likely that both groups were biased in reporting their symptoms. While the misinformed group responded under the influence of “placebo effect” thinking they were getting effective treatment when, in reality, none was given, the group that received correct information was likely biased by a “nocebo effect,”  manifesting the negative side-effects the treatment was known to cause.

Despite this, the study does validate that at least part of our withdrawal symptoms are based purely on our expectations. This insight can help one picture a better outcome when he or she attempts to quit or reduce his or her coffee intake next time. It also suggests that tricking oneself into thinking one is getting caffeine when the dose is actually decreasing, or conversely, thinking that one is decreasing the dose while receiving caffeine, might be a great way to give up one’s coffee habit.

Link Found between Forcing a Smile for Customers and More Drinking after Work

According to researchers at Penn State and the University at Buffalo, employees who force themselves to smile and or who try to appear happy before customers despite being annoyed—may be at risk for heavier drinking post work.

The research team studied the drinking habits of people, who are in public dealing jobs such as nurses or teachers who work with patients or students respectively, or those in food service working with customers. They found that regularly faking or amplifying positive emotions, like smiling, or suppressing negative emotions while resisting the urge to, for instance, roll one’s eyes, was linked with heavier drinking after work.

Alicia Grandey, professor of psychology at Penn State, asserted that the findings indicate that employers may want to reconsider “service with a smile” policies.

According to Grandey, faking and suppressing emotions in front of customers make employees reach for a drink and it is something beyond the stress of the job or feeling negative. “The more they have to control negative emotions at work, the less they are able to control their alcohol intake after work,” she said.

While earlier research has shown a link between service workers and problems with drinking, why this actually happens could not be known. Grandey hypothesized that employees may be using a lot of self-control to fake or suppress emotions in front of customers and therefore, later, those employees may not have too much self-control left to regulate how much alcohol they drink.

“Although smiling as part of one’s job sounds like a positive thing, doing it all day can be exhausting. As usually money is tied to showing positive emotions and curbing negative ones in these jobs, money motivates the individuals to disregard their natural tendencies, but doing it all day can be draining.”

The study published in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology included data from phone interviews with 1,592 U.S. workers. The data was, in turn, part of a larger survey funded by the National Survey of Work Stress and Health, which included almost 3,000 participants representing U.S. working population.

The information included in the data was about how often the participants faked or suppressed emotions, also called “surface acting,” as well as how often and how much the participants drank after work. The researchers also measured how impulsive the participants are and how much freedom they feel they have at work.

The researchers found that overall, employees who interacted with the public drank more after work as compared to those who did not. Besides, surface acting was also related to drinking after work, and that connection was stronger or weaker depending on the person’s trait-like self-control and the job’s extent of self-control.

“The link between surface acting and drinking after work was clearer for participants who were impulsive or who lacked self-control over behavior at work,” Grandey said. “If an individual is impulsive or constantly told how to do his or her job, it may be harder for him or her to control emotions all day, and when that individual reaches home, he or she doesn’t have that self-control to stop after one drink.”

Specifically, the findings demonstrated a stronger relation between surface acting and drinking when employees who were highly impulsive also worked in jobs where employees have one-time service encounters with customers, like a call center or coffee shop, rather than relationships, like health care or education. “People in these jobs tend to be younger and in entry-level positions, and may lack the self-control tendencies and the monetary and social rewards that can buffer the costs of surface acting,” Grandney pointed out. Further, the results suggest that surface acting is less likely to create trouble when the work is personally rewarding to the employee.

“Nurses, for instance, may intensify or fake their emotions for clear reasons,” Grandey said. “They’re trying to comfort a patient or build a strong relationship. But someone who is faking emotions for a customer they may never see again, that may not be as rewarding, and may eventually be more exhausting or taxing.”

Grandey said that these insights may be useful for employers to create healthier workplace environments. “Employers may want to consider allowing employees to have a little more autonomy or independence at work. And when the emotional effort is clearly connected with financial or relational rewards, the effects aren’t so bad.”

 

PTSD: Brain Biomarkers May Explain Variance in Symptom Severity

Researchers at Yale University and the Icahn School of Medicine have identified biomarkers, using sophisticated computational tools, which may explain why some people have more severe posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms than others.

The findings published in Nature Neuroscience may help evaluate who would be at greater risk of PTSD symptoms.

The study of combat veterans who had been exposed to extreme incidents, demonstrated that those veterans who had severe PTSD symptoms had distinct patterns of neurological and physiological responses affecting associative learning—the ability to discern harmful stimuli from safe ones in the environment.

Ilan Harpaz-Rotem, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale and co-corresponding author of the paper said, “We are shedding new light on how people learn fear and unlearn it.”

The researchers wanted to unravel why some people suffer greatly when experience a traumatic event while others exhibit few or limited side effects.

Retired soldiers who had undergone intense circumstances during combat deployment were examined for physiological responses while being presented with pictures of two different faces. In classic fear-conditioning tests, the subjects were given slight electric shocks after viewing one of the faces, but not the other. Later, the faces that were combined with shock were switched in an attempt to have the subjects “unlearn” original fear conditioning and test their ability to learn that something new in the environment is hazardous.

The findings deduced using computational modeling revealed that in people with severe PTSD symptoms, the amygdala and striatum were less able to track changes in threat level, which may serve as biomarkers for PTSD symptom severity.

According to Harpaz-Rotem, “There were pronounced variances in the ‘learning rates’ of those with severe symptoms and those without symptoms.” Highly symptomatic individuals tended to overreact to a mismatch between their expectations and what they actually experienced. In a war zone, a garbage can might contain an explosive device, he explained, but those with severe PTSD symptoms have a harder time unlearning the fear in civilian life in comparison to those with less severe symptoms.

The study’s co-author and associate professor of comparative medicine and neuroscience at Yale, Ifat Levy said, “The study has offered novel understanding of the neurobiology of PTSD and a better understanding of learning processes among people with this disorder which might pave the way for refining potential PTSD treatment in future.

PTSD is a common anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to a harrowing event or ordeal. It can occur at any age between childhood and adulthood. Those suffering from PTSD may experience startling thoughts and memories of the event. Sleeplessness, depression, or other anxiety disorders frequently co-occur with PTSD.

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doi:10.1038/s41593-018-0315-x

 

Childhood Anxiety Related With Later Alcohol Problems

A recent study published in Addiction has suggested that children and adolescents with higher levels of anxiety may be at a greater risk of developing alcohol problems.

Researchers of Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group at University of Bristol, U.K., conducted a study to explore whether early anxiety is linked to later alcohol use and alcohol use disorders.

The link between anxiety and alcohol use had been investigated in the past too but nothing conclusive could be found. While some studies showed higher anxiety linked to greater alcohol use, others demonstrated anxiety related to lower alcohol use, or not associated at all.

Researchers carried out a systematic review of 51 prospective cohort studies, for this study, from 11 countries including the United States, Canada, UK, Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Taiwan, New Zealand, Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

On review, it was found that 46 studies comprised males and females; four had an all-male sample; while one had an all-female sample. The sample size of the studies ranged from 110 to 11,157 participants. The age of anxiety exposure ranged from 3 to 24 years, and alcohol outcome age ranged from 11 to 42 years.

alcoholic-slumped-next-to-glass-of-alcohol_crpAlthough some evidence of a link between child- and adolescent-anxiety and later alcohol use disorders had been found, associations of anxiety with later drinking frequency, quantity, and binge drinking were more inconsistent, the researchers reported.

Maddy Dyer, a Ph.D. student in the School of Psychological Science’s Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group and lead author of the study said, “Our findings indicate that young people with higher anxiety may have a greater risk of developing alcohol problems.”

According to the researchers, still further research needs to be undertaken to understand why there are differences in associations for alcohol consumption levels versus problematic use, and to ascertain which individuals with anxiety develop alcohol problems. This could bring marked improvements in personalized interventions.

Risk of Alzheimer’s May Rise Due to Stress

New research has shown that the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease may be increased due to vital exhaustion, which is a marker of psychological distress.

Many factors such as age, family history, and genetic makeup may raise the risk of Alzheimer’s. Health conditions like cardiovascular disease or diabetes may also influence the probability of developing dementia as they impact the blood vessels. A new study has demonstrated that psychological factors especially psychological distress can also increase the chances of dementia. Vital exhaustion refers to a mental state of psychological distress that manifests as irritability, fatigue, and a feeling of demoralization and may be a response to certain life problems that are unresolvable and have been continuing for a long time. Vital exhaustion results when an individual is exposed to stressors for a prolonged period.

early-signs-of-dementiaEarlier studies have already indicated that vital exhaustion may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, premature death, and obesity, etc. The findings of this new study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease have now suggested that vital exhaustion may raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease as well.

Data of almost 7,000 people who had participated in the Copenhagen City Heart Study between 1991 and 1994 was analyzed for this study. The participants were on an average 60 years at that time and were asked questions about vital exhaustion as a part of the survey.

Islamoska and her team clinically followed those participants until the end of 2016. The hospital records and mortality and prescription registers of those participants were examined in search of diagnoses of dementia.

The findings revealed a dose-response connection between vital exhaustion in midlife and the development of Alzheimer’s later on. Islamoska reported that for each additional symptom of vital exhaustion, they found that the risk of dementia rose by 2 per cent.

The study showed that participants reporting five to nine symptoms vital exhaustion had a 25 per cent higher risk of dementia than those with no symptoms, while those reporting 10 to 17 symptoms had a 40 per cent higher risk of dementia, compared with those not having the symptoms.

The team further added that the results are unlikely to be due to reverse causation, that is, it is improbable that dementia causes vital exhaustion, rather than the other way around.

The researchers opined that excessive levels of the stress hormone cortisol and cardiovascular changes could be the potential reasons for these findings. “Stress can have severe and harmful consequences, not just for our brain health, but our health in general. Our study indicates that we can go further in the prevention of dementia by addressing psychological risk factors for dementia,” said Islamoska.

Parents Face Up to 6 Years of Sleep Deprivation Post Childbirth

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A new study conducted by Researchers at the University of Warwick has demonstrated that the birth of a child has far-reaching effects on the sleep of new mother and the impact is more prominent during the first three months after birth. The study also revealed that the duration of sleep satisfaction decreases up to 6 years for both mother and father post first childbirth.

A collaboration with the German Institute for Economic Research and the West Virginia University examined sleep in 4,659 parents who had a child between 2008 and 2015 to study long-term effects of pregnancy and childbirth on sleep satisfaction and duration of first-time and experienced mothers and fathers.

Parents were also interviewed yearly to report on their sleep during these years. It was revealed that mothers slept on average 1 hour less than they did before pregnancy in the first 3 months after birth. On the other hand, the duration of fathers’ sleep cut down by approximately 15 minutes. Dr Sakari Lemola from Department of Psychology, University of Warwick says that women tend to experience more sleep disruption after the birth of a child as compared to men which reiterates that it is still mothers who play the role of the primary caregiver in comparison to fathers.

Sleep duration was still about 20 minutes shorter in mothers and 15 minutes shorter in fathers when children grew up and were 4 – 6 years old when compared with their sleep duration before pregnancy.

Besides, first-time parents showed more pronounced sleep effects than experienced parents. The sleep effects were also more marked in breastfeeding mothers rather than in bottle-feeding mothers in the first 6 months after birth. Interestingly, the changes in sleep after childbirth seemed to be immune to factors such as higher household income and psychosocial factors like dual vs. single parenting

According to Dr Lemola, it is possible that increased demands and obligations that accompany parenting lead to shorter sleep and lowered sleep quality even up to 6 years after birth of the first child.

Sleeping in on the weekend won’t make up for your lost hours of sleep

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According to University of Colorado Boulder research published in Current Biology, sleeping in on the weekend is not an effective strategy to repair the damage from a week of sleepless nights. Rather, the attempt to play catch-up for a few days and then going back to bad sleep habits makes things worse on some health measures.

Earlier research has demonstrated that lack of sufficient sleep can increase risk of obesity and diabetes, in part by enhancing the craving to munch at night and decreasing insulin sensitivity—or the ability to regulate blood sugar.

Studies suggest that although the body can recover mildly during the weekend due to sleeping in on those two days, the effects don’t last.

Senior author Kenneth Wright, director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Lab and lead author Chris Depner, an assistant research professor of Integrative Physiology, enlisted 36 adult volunteers, for the study, to live for two weeks in a laboratory, where their food intake, light exposure and sleep were monitored. They found that among the people who got to sleep in on the weekend showed no benefit in any of their metabolic outcome.

“It could be that the yo-yoing back and forth—changing the time we eat, changing our circadian clock and then going back to insufficient sleep is uniquely disruptive,” said Wright.

People found it tough to make up for lost sleep, even when they were given a chance because their body clocks had shifted further making it hard to fall asleep on time even when they had to wake up early the next day.

The study reiterates that consistency in sleep schedule matters a great deal. Getting sufficient sleep on a regular schedule is essential for an individual’s health and well-being. Frequently changing sleep schedules is a form of stress associated with metabolic abnormalities. Therefore, one must try to get 7 hours of sleep as many nights as possible.

Diabetes and Depression May Be Linked—Study

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According to a recent study, patients with diabetes are more likely to die from accidents, suicides or alcohol-related factors. This might be due to the patients’ mental health which suffers on account of the psychological liability on the patients, to live with this potentially serious, debilitating disease. Globally, millions of deaths are caused due to type-1 and type-2 diabetes, both of which are greatly prevalent worldwide. Patients with diabetes are already known to be at higher risk of developing kidney disorders, cardiovascular diseases, and even cancer, which may in turn, cause earlier death.

Although recent studies have established a link between diabetes and an increased risk of depression, it has still not been fully investigated that in what ways troubled mental health may impact patients with diabetes.

The study published in the European Journal of Endocrinology evaluated alcohol-related, suicides or accidental causes of death of over 400,000 people with or without diabetes in Finland.