Slow, deep breathing has remarkable effects on both the mind and body. When done right, almost anyone can gain relief from stress and anxiety in as little as a few minutes.

It’s one of the simplest and most accessible forms of relaxation, yet little has been known about how the simple act of breathing induces such a relaxed state. Now, for the first time, scientists have been able to identify how slow breathing and calmness of mind are connected.

In a recent Stanford University study, scientists discovered a small cluster of neurons deep within the brainstem, which connect the breath to different mind states including relaxation, attention, excitement and anxiety. It was first discovered in mice back in 1991 and is referred to as the”respiratory pacemaker” — now known to exist in humans as well.

In comparison to the heart, which only slows and quickens, the respiratory pacemaker’s nature is much more multi-dimensional — characterized by all the different ways our breathing can change. For example, our breathing changes when we’re excited, sighing, yawning, gasping, sleeping, crying and exercising.

The scientists wanted to find out if different types of neurons in the cluster might control different types of breathing. They were able to pinpoint around 60 different subtypes in the respiratory pacemakers of mice by using advanced genetics techniques that allowed them to observe different proteins produced by the genes in each cell.

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