The research, on a tiny group of neurons deep within the brains of mice, also underscores just how complicated and pervasive the links are within our body between breathing , thinking, behaving and feeling.
Breathing is one of the body’s most essential and elastic processes. Our breaths occur constantly and rhythmically, much like our hearts’ steady beating. But while we generally cannot change our hearts’ rhythm by choice, we can alter how we breathe, in some cases consciously, as in holding our breath, or with little choice, such as sighing, gasping or yawning.
But how the mind and body regulate breathing and vice versa at the cellular level has remained largely mysterious.
More than 25 years ago, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles first discovered a small bundle of about 3,000 interlinked neurons inside the brainstems of animals, including people that seem to control most aspects of breathing . They dubbed these neurons the breathing pacemaker.
In the years since, though, little progress had been made in understanding precisely how those cells work.
But recently, a group of scientists at Stanford and other universities, including some of the U.C.L.A. researchers, began using sophisticated new genetics techniques to study individual neurons in the pacemaker.