Nasal breathing improves memory

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What influence does our breathing have on our memory?
Does our breathing have an influence on the storage of information in our memory? Researchers have now discovered that breathing through the nose can actually help store and consolidate memories.

Scientists at the Karolinska Institutet recently found that breathing through the nose can have a positive effect on memory. The physicians published the results of their study in the English-language journal “The Journal of Neuroscience”.

Can a damaged sense of smell indicate dementia?
Neuroscientists have previously investigated a possible link between smell and memory. These experts suspect that a damaged sense of smell can indicate later dementia. In investigating a possible link between odours and memory, the doctors found some interesting facts. One study showed, for example, that people with a good spatial memory are better able to recognise odours. Another research study showed that information related to time and space is stored in the so-called nucleus anterior olfactorius. This area of the brain is also involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Breathing through the nose improved olfactory memory
The latest research has now focused on the possible effects of the breathing technique on memory. The researchers came to the conclusion that breathing through the nose instead of through the mouth improves olfactory memory. In the study, male and female participants were asked to learn twelve new odours on two occasions. After each session, the scientists asked the subjects to breathe for an hour either through the nose or through the mouth. At the end of the study, the subjects smelled the twelve old scents they had learned together with a dozen new scents. The participants then had to decide whether the odours were old or new. Research shows how our brain integrates odours with spatiotemporal information to create episodic memories, the authors of the study explain. When people breathed through the nose, they could remember smells better than when they breathed through the mouth.

Why did breathing through the nose make for a better memory?
The study shows that people remember odours better when they breathe through the nose while the memory is consolidated. This is the process that takes place between learning and memory recall. The scientists explain that previous research has already shown that so-called olfactory receptors are able to absorb not only odours but also small variations in the airflow, activating different parts of the brain during inhalation and exhalation. However, the researchers currently do not know how different breathing patterns influence human behaviour. The idea that breathing influences our behaviour is not really new, say the authors of the study. In fact, such knowledge has existed for thousands of years in areas such as meditation.

Further research is needed
With their new research work, the scientists now wanted to find out which exact mechanism is responsible for the effect of respiration on olfactory memory. An important next step is to measure what actually happens in the brain during breathing and how this is related to memory. This was previously practically impossible because electrodes had to be inserted directly into the brain. The doctors have managed to circumvent this problem and now, together with other colleagues, they are developing a new method for measuring activity in the nose and brain without having to use electrodes.

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