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13 Dec 2016

Deep breathing linked to better movement skills

An experimental set-up shows a volunteer attempting to trace the narrow path between two concentric circles within two seconds
G.S. Mudur, TT, New Delhi, Dec. 12: Scientists in India have documented a previously unknown effect of paced deep breathing - an improvement in the capacity to retain new motor skills that they say may help learn movements for painting, sports, or stroke rehabilitation.
A 30-minute session of deep, alternate-nostril meditative breathing exercises can "remarkably enhance" the retention of newly learned fine movement skills, the scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Gandhinagar, said after a study on young, healthy volunteers.
Several earlier studies have suggested that relaxed, deep and slow breathing can improve working memory, increase pain tolerance and reduce stress, but the new research is the first to demonstrate the effect of simple breathing exercises on the capacity to remember newly learned movement skills.
"We think deep breathing exercises help retain fine movement skills needed in many situations," Pratik Mutha, assistant professor at the Centre for Cognitive Sciences and the department of biomedical engineering at IIT Gandhingar said.
"It may serve as an additional tool for retention along with standard practice methods," Mutha said.
Mutha and research scholar Goldy Yadav challenged two groups of young college students to accurately trace a narrow path within two concentric circles on a tablet in about two seconds.
Students in one group were asked to practise the breathing exercises for 30 minutes after learning to trace the path, while students in the other group were asked to simply relax after their learning.
Such a challenge involves overcoming a trade-off between speed and accuracy. Typically, the faster people try and draw such a path between two concentric circles, the greater the chances of errors.
The students thus had to overcome this trade-off - they had to learn to be fast and accurate at the same time.
The scientists found that members of the group that practised breathing exercises after learning were "strikingly better" in drawing the circles than the students who had just relaxed - measured through how well they recalled the skill, not just immediately but also 24 hours later.
In a second experiment, in which the participants practised breathing after their first retention test, the scientists observed significantly better retention 24 hours after the exercises. The researchers have described their findings in the research journal Scientific Reports.
The study adds fresh evidence on the benefits of deep breathing exercises, typically practised in meditation programmes.
Psychologists at the Montana State University in the US were among the first to document the effects of such breathing exercises on cognitive, including verbal, tasks, through a study in 1989.
Mutha said the mechanisms through which deep breathing causes these effects remain unclear. Some scientists have speculated that the breathing exercises in some way stimulate the release of brain chemicals such as brain-derived neurotropic factors, or substances that stimulate brain plasticity which could explain some of the benefits.
"Earlier studies have documented that these substances may be released through the stimulation of the vagus nerve after breathing exercises," Mutha said. "It is possible the breathing exercises, through this effect, facilitate learning and retention of memories of fine motor movements. But this needs to be established through more studies."
Fine motor movements are required in a number of situations - from art and painting to training in sports. The researchers have proposed that such breathing exercises may also aid patients recovering from stroke to relearn movements, a task which is currently managed primarily through physiotherapy sessions.

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