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Each Breath is Unique

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New insight into how the brain regulates the rhythm of breathing has changed the way scientists think about the neurons’ ability to work together to help us breathe.  By analyzing neurons in the brains of mice, a team at UCLA studied a neural network believed to be the area of the brain that controls the rhythm of breathing (the preBötzinger Complex).  Each breath was found to be unique and spontaneously created.

                The scientists analyzed the electrical activity of this network and found that it’s how the neurons individually function that forms a collective which drives the breathing process.  They aren’t working as a complete and synchronized unit as previously thought.  Given the body’s necessity of a steady rhythm of breath, this was surprising information.

                The neurons fire individually and in a scattered pattern, but then they sync up and start to synchronize.  When the neurons finally get synced up, the first activity of breathing begins.  It’s the short synchronization of the neurons after they haphazardly fire on their own that causes a signal to go to the muscles of the diaphragm to contract, causing an expansion of the chest.  The lungs are then filled with air.  As the signal dwindles, the chest pushes the air out, and the neurons lose their synchronicity.  This pattern keeps repeating, and the breathing rhythm is constructed.

                The rhythm in our breathing is different with each breath.  It adjusts constantly with physical exertion, elevations in stress, and circadian rhythms which help us fall asleep and wake.  The previous understanding was that the preBötzinger Complex contained neurons which controlled the mechanisms of breathing, but now scientists understand the neurons aren’t regulated in that area at all.  Instead, they fire individually and without guidance; and when they start to interact with one another, they finally reach synchronization.

                This insight is useful to research being conducted on breathing disorders, sleep apnea, and may even help people understand how to control depressed respiratory function in opioid overdoses.


Ashhad, Sufyan, and Jack L. Feldman. “Emergent Elements of Inspiratory Rhythmogenesis: Network Synchronization and Synchrony Propagation.” Neuron, 3 Mar. 2020, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2020.02.005.


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