A recent study suggests that without the ability to sigh we’d have been dead by now. Scientists at Stanford University and UCLA found that the simple reflex prevents lungs from collapsing.
Researchers were also able to detect the regions in the brain that are activated when we sigh. Scientists are optimistic that their findings could help medical research further develop treatments for patients who sigh either too much or too little. Additionally, psychologists could better understand the link between emotions and brain processes that lead to sighing.
Study authors explained that we often sigh more often than we are aware of. Jack Feldman, co-author of the study and UCLA researcher, noted that an adult sighs about 12 times per hour without even noticing it.
You can see if this is true by sitting in a quiet room and paying attention to your breathing. You should observe that every five minutes your body takes a double inhalation before exhaling. That’s an involuntary sigh.
These sighs, however, are not triggered by the individual’s emotional state. Researchers explained that the body needs an additional gust of air every now and then to help the tiny sacs in our lungs, dubbed alveoli, reinflate.
These sacs absorb oxygen and transport it to our blood stream, while they also take carbon dioxide out. But when they fail to reinflate the only method to get them back going is to sigh.
Constant sighing is observed in the animal kingdom, as well. Rats and mice for instance sigh up to 40 times every hour.
UCLA and Stanford researchers were curious to learn how a sigh is produced in the brain. Nearly a decade ago, Feldman was involved in a bizarre research with a Stanford researcher Mark Krasnow. The team managed to get laboratory rodents sigh up to 400 times per hour by introducing in the part of the brain that controls breathing a non-lethal dose of bombesin, a molecule extracted from a toxin found on the skin of Amazonian frogs.
Past research had shown that humans and other mammals produce peptides when they are under a lot of stress so they sigh more often. Peptides are molecules related to bombesin. Years later, the two researchers were reunited in a new experiment. Shortly after, they along with Krasnow’s student Kevin Yackle, were able to identify the brain cells that produce peptides when humans are stressed.
A study on the findings was published Feb. 8 in Nature.
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