Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice - Yackle et al. (2017)

Key Points

  • The breathing center in the brain has a powerful effect on higher-order brain functions

  • Slow and regular breathing promotes calmness, where as rapid breathing promotes arousal

The Breathing Diabetic Summary

Anytime a new study gets featured in Science, we know it’s time to sit up straight and read closely.  This paper is no exception.   

The first observation they made was that slower breathing was associated with calm behaviors, whereas faster breathing was associated with active behaviors. This sounds obvious, but it gets more interesting.  They found that if they removed a certain cluster of brain neurons (Cdh9/Dbxl preBotC), they were able to turn off this active mode, and subsequently promote slow breathing and calm behaviors.  Thus, they were able to isolate the exact cluster of brain neurons that promote an active, aroused state, which are also controlled by breathing.  What’s more, the authors showed that these breathing neurons are a “gateway” to the rest of the brain, helping explain how slow breathing is able to calm us down.

What does this mean for us?  Essentially, their results show that we can calm ourselves by breathing slow, or excite ourselves by breathing fast, something we probably already knew by now.  But, they are showing the exact set of neurons controlling this process and show that these neurons give the breath “direct access” to higher-order brain function.  That’s pretty amazing and Science worthy.

Abstract from Paper

Slow, controlled breathing has been used for centuries to promote mental calming, and it is used clinically to suppress excessive arousal such as panic attacks. However, the physiological and neural basis of the relationship between breathing and higher-order brain activity is unknown.We found a neuronal subpopulation in the mouse preBötzinger complex (preBötC), the primary breathing rhythm generator, which regulates the balance between calm and arousal behaviors. Conditional, bilateral genetic ablation of the ~175 Cdh9/Dbx1 double-positive preBötC neurons in adult mice left breathing intact but increased calm behaviors and decreased time in aroused states. These neurons project to, synapse on, and positively regulate noradrenergic neurons in the locus coeruleus, a brain center implicated in attention, arousal, and panic that projects throughout the brain.

Journal Reference:

Kevin Yackle, Lindsay A. Schwarz, Kaiwen Kam, Jordan M. Sorokin, John R. Huguenard, Jack L. Feldman, Liqun Luo, and Mark A. Krasnow, (2017) Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice, Science, 355 (6332), 1411-1415, DOI:10.1126/science.aai7984.