Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Breathe Through Pain

How breathing is linked to sensations such as pain and emotional processing

23 February 2022

Breathe Through Pain

When you stub your toe, you take a quick breath. More severe injury leads to more intense panting. This intrinsic link between breathing and pain or anxiety is not well understood. Now a study has revealed an interconnected network of neurons in the brain that explains the relationship. Researchers examined a region of the brainstem (pictured) and found some neurons (red) projecting to the amygdala, where fear and pain are processed, and others (green) reaching into the pre-Bötzinger complex, which orchestrates breathing rhythm. Experiments showed that stimulating cells in one region had impacts in the other. This provides a possible explanation for opioid-induced respiratory depression (OIRD) – the condition that causes many opioid overdose deaths as a result of pain relief also reducing breathing. This could lead to new approaches to pain reduction without risking OIRD, improve our understanding of anxiety, and help everyone breathe a little easier.

Written by Anthony Lewis

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