In 1903, TheNew York Times predicted it would take between 1 million and 10 million years to develop airplanes. The Wright Brothers took flight just nine weeks later. In 2023, the same levels of ambition, determination, and innovation will make green flight a reality, and the first commercial passenger planes fueled by hydrogen will take to the skies.
Aviation is the world’s fastest-growing contributor to climate change. According to a report by the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation, by 2037 we will see an estimated doubling of air passengers to 8.2 billion. And by 2050, the sector could be responsible for as much as 22 percent of our total carbon emissions. We know that we have to cut global emissions in half by 2030—and that means addressing the rising contribution of the aviation sector, and quickly.
My company, ZeroAvia, is tackling the transition to zero-emission aviation through the development of hydrogen-electric engines for airplanes. These use hydrogen in fuel cells to generate electricity, which is then used to power electric motors to turn the aircraft’s propellers. Ultimately, we will put these engines in every type of aircraft—all the way up to large, commercial aircraft.
Why fuel cells? According to McKinsey, electric flight powered by hydrogen offers the best possible reduction in climate impact. Hydrogen fuel cells are between two and three times more energy efficient than current gas-guzzling fuel combustion engines. And the sole byproduct from these engines is water.
Alternatives, such as sustainable aviation fuel, do not tackle the problem of non-carbon emissions. Nitrogen oxides, particulates, soot, and high-temperature water vapor are all potent climate forcing agents. Combined, these have a larger climate change impact than carbon dioxide does alone. But for hydrogen-electric engines, they do not enter the equation.
What about batteries? Too heavy and too inefficient. Research from the University of Houston suggests eight airplanes would be required to carry the batteries needed to power a jumbo jet. What works for a Tesla doesn’t necessarily work for a Dreamliner.
Hydrogen is also abundant—as it can be produced from water—and it will only become cheaper to produce. According to PWC, the cost of green hydrogen will drop by 50 percent by 2030. On-site hydrogen production further lowers prices and makes the entire system zero-emission from end to end.
In 2023, we will finalize the design for the world’s first commercial hydrogen-electric aircraft engine, and we plan to enter the market by the following year. This will unlock commercial zero-emission flights of up to 300 miles, say, London to Glasgow, or San Francisco to Los Angeles. As well as powering new aircraft, hydrogen-electric engines can also be retro-fitted into existing planes, ensuring rapid market entry and enabling us to tackle the sector’s emissions sooner.
While converting the entire industry will take time, the road map is obvious. The UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute’s FlyZero project made it clear that hydrogen will be aviation’s fuel of the future. This year-long independent study commissioned by the UK government established that the first generation of zero-emission aircraft would need to include hydrogen technology by 2025.
The world’s biggest problem requires the farthest-reaching solutions, and support for hydrogen is growing in governments globally. Measures in the US Inflation Reduction Act will turbocharge the hydrogen economy, while the UK’s Jet Zero strategy aims to deliver net-zero aviation by the middle of the century. In 2023, accelerating innovation will meet this increasing political will, and hydrogen electricity will start the process of transforming aviation into a zero-emissions industry in a generation.
Prices for meats, poultry, fish and eggs rose 2.2 percent in September from the month before. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Like a guest who overstays his welcome, inflation is getting on our nerves. For people with enough income or savings, rising prices are just an annoyance. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, inflation means a much harder time paying for food, gas and other items. It could mean skipped meals or late rental payments.
The latest inflation data, released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showed prices increasing 9.1 percent over the same period a year ago. Increases in prices for housing and energy — fuel, oil, gasoline, and electricity — were the largest contributors to the uptick. The higher cost of food also drove inflation.
“Inflation has been a surprising and unwelcome guest seeming to persist at an elevated level at a time when we’re all hoping to put the devastating economic impacts of the pandemic behind,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate. “Like the pandemic-caused downturn itself, it exacerbates wealth and income inequality. The wealthy can adjust. Those on lower incomes, not so much. It is as if some people just can’t catch a much-needed break.”
Predictions last year that rising prices might be temporary were wrong. So, until things stabilize, here’s how to handle increases in consumer prices.
What changes should I make to my budget to beat inflation?
Coping with inflation comes down to reviewing how you spend your money. Even if you’ve cut until it hurts, you’re going to have to look for additional trims.For instance, could you take in a roommate or move in with someone to reduce your housing costs?
Obvious places to cut are eating out, streaming services and unnecessary car trips. When was the last time you looked at your mobile plan?Use apps and the Internet to find lower prices, including for gasoline.
“When prices aren’t changing all that much, people may be inclined to invest less of their time shopping, thinking that it might not make all that much of a difference,” Hamrick said. “Think of shopping right now as investing time to find better deals.”
Supply-chain disruptions continue to push consumer prices up. One way to cope is to put off unnecessary purchases until supply issues are resolved and prices go down. “Whether it’s an updated iPhone or another piece of clothing to mostly hang in the closet, most Americans simply consume more than they need to,” Hamrick said.
Is there anything I can do to reduce my food costs?
In an inflationary environment, substitutions can be your financial friend.
Food prices have been rising largely because of weather-related shortages, transportation issues and lack of staffing. Meat and fish prices are going up fasterthan vegetable prices, so take that into consideration in your at-home meal planning.Hamrick said he went shopping to make crab cakes and saw that the price for crabmeat was up 50 percent.
“I bought chicken thighs and cooked them at a fraction of the price,” he said. “Now’s the time to try to spend time when possible preparing meals at home, using lower-cost items as much as possible.”
Inflation doesn’t really change what you should have been doing all along, which is diversifying, said Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner who founded the fee-only Life Planning Partners, based in Jacksonville, Fla.
“Through thick and thin, the best way to prepare for any economic environment is to have a diversified portfolio,” McClanahan said. “If you aren’t already practicing diversification, now is the time to make that change.”
If you’re an ultraconservative saver who has shied away from stocks because you’re scared of the stock market, you might want to consider that inflation is also a risk. If you don’t at least keep pace with inflation, you’re losing the purchasing power of your money.
“Where interest rates are right now, investors need to take on slightly more risk to get a return that may beat inflation,” said Ben Bakkum, quantitative investing associate at the digital adviser firm Betterment.
Is there anything I can do to take advantage of inflation?
If you have some cash that you don’t think you’ll need for a while, consider purchasing bonds, McClanahan recommends.Inflation-indexed Series I savings bonds, which are issued by the Treasury Department, allow investors to earn a combination of a fixed interest rate and the rate of inflation, adjusted semiannually.
The composite rate for I bonds issued fromMay through the end of Oct.is now 9.62 percent, a portion of which is indexed to inflation every six months. To buy and own an electronic I bond, you must establish a TreasuryDirect account. Go to treasurydirect.gov.
If you receive Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits, you’ll see your payments go up because of rising consumer prices. The Social Security Administration announced a 5.9 percent benefit increase for 2022.
And, if inflation relents next year, which some believe is possible as supply chains normalize, Social Security recipients will continue to get the higher payments anyway, Hamrick said.
Additionally, one of the few potentially beneficial effects of inflation will be that the Federal Reserve may well lift benchmark rates sooner rather than later, and more than previously believed, he said. That’s welcome news for savers. “Previously miserly returns on savings should begin to rise,” Hamrick said.
It’s hard not to panic about inflation when your paycheck doesn’t go as far as you need. Still, keep things in perspective. It’s not the 1970s, when prices skyrocketed. “Recent headlines about increasing inflation have been alarming, but inflation itself is not abnormal if it’s not out of control,” Bakkum said.
As the government has been focused on crude oil and gasoline, diesel gas supplies have drastically fallen to dangerously low levels.
With diesel prices going up, it will cost more to transport consumer goods, which means that inflation won’t taper off anytime soon.
See list below for sectors and stocks most impacted by the shortage.
While a lot of attention has been directed toward the prices of crude oil, diesel gas suddenly appears scarce as we head into the winter months. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) has stated that the U.S. now only has 25 days’ worth of diesel supply left, which is a dangerously low level. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has drastically impacted global energy supplies as refinery closures and disruptions in the U.S. have recently caused issues with the supply of diesel gas at a time when demand is surging due to the changing seasons.
With diesel fuel and heating oil inventories running low, inflation will remain high for the foreseeable future. Since diesel is the primary fuel source for trucks, rails and vessels that transport most consumer goods, it’s looking like the prices of these transported goods will also increase.
What’s happening with Diesel right now?
Bloomberg reported that the U.S. diesel crisis is here and will spread across the East Coast, where there are transportation delays. Diesel inventories are at the lowest seasonal level ever, heading into winter. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced that U.S. distillate inventory (including heating oil and diesel fuel) had 106.2 million barrels in the week ending October 14, which is about 20% below the 5-year average and a 25-day supply.
There are colossal supply and demand issues with diesel fuel right now. Since diesel fuel is similar to heating oil, the demand will skyrocket as the northern hemisphere enters the winter months where people will need oil to heat their homes. Some speculate that if reserves aren’t built up by the end of November, there could be severe consequences — similar to the European energy crisis. The supply issues are being caused partly due to the embargo on Russian oil and because the refining capacity in the U.S. has dropped over the past few years.
The price of diesel hit a record high of $5.816 per gallon in June, and there’s a chance that it could go higher if we have a cold winter or if the European energy crisis gets worse — both of which are still undetermined as of the time of this writing.
Policymakers have been focusing on crude oil prices to fight inflation, but it appears that the diesel gas shortage could offset this. Goldman Sachs has warned that the government’s focus on fighting higher energy prices has only been on crude prices, even though that has little impact on what customers have to pay for. It’s also believed that refinery closures and disruptions are leading to this shortage of refined products like diesel gas.
What stocks are impacted by a diesel gas shortage?
A diesel gas shortage impacts many companies since the fuel is needed to transport goods across the country.
These are the industries most impacted by a diesel gas shortage:
Trucking and transportation. Since most of our goods are transported by diesel fuel, any company in this industry is facing the potential of low diesel supplies that could drive prices up.
Construction. Many power trucks and excavators use diesel, the increased cost of transporting raw materials, will drive home construction prices even higher when people already have to deal with soaring loan rates. This would also impact the mortgage industry since consumers will think twice about borrowing money, making everything more expensive.
Fresh produce. The prices of fresh produce will continue to increase as it’s becoming more costly to transport the goods promptly.
Other consumer goods. With all of our goods being transported by freight or truck, there could be issues with getting items into stores in time for the holiday season as we reach dangerously low levels of diesel.
It’s fair to say that stocks in any of these industries could be impacted by the diesel gas shortage if they can’t get the goods out on time or if they have to raise prices. Higher prices would only hurt consumer confidence as the threat of a recession looms large.
When we looked at stock market winners, we discovered that many oil companies were doing exceptionally well in 2022. We will be watching to see if limits are imposed on the export of U.S. oil and natural gas, as this would impact earnings.
What stocks are impacted by the diesel gas shortage?
Suncor Energy (SU)
Suncor produces synthetic crude from oil sands, a method that’s unlike conventional oil production. With diesel gas prices going up, Suncor stands to benefit as the stock is up almost 40% for 2022. Suncor has hiked up its dividend recently, making this an attractive stock for investors.
Valero Energy (VLO)
Valero is one of the top oil refineries as they manufacture and market transportation fuels. The company is also the second largest producer of renewable fuels, which means it will stay profitable if the world turns to renewable energy sources. Valero beat the earnings estimate for the third quarter, and the stock is up about 67% for 2022.
PBF Energy Inc. (PBF).
PBF is a petroleum refiner and supplier of transportation fuels, heating oils and other petroleum products. The company is working on producing renewable diesel by 2023 which would be a major game changer in this space. This stock is also up over 200% for the year while the rest of the market has continued to struggle.
Even though there’s a growing concern about switching over to cleaner energy sources, it’s important to note this transition won’t be quick.
What’s the impact of a diesel gas shortage?
While there has been plenty of buzz about the European energy crisis and the growth prospects of electric vehicles, we can’t ignore that diesel is the primary fuel source for power trucks, rails and vessels transporting consumer goods. If diesel prices skyrocket, then the prices of the goods transported will also increase accordingly. With the holiday season approaching, this would mean that we could expect further increases in prices.
Experts also worry that diesel prices could tip the economy into a recession. As the Fed continues to fight inflation by raising interest rates, other factors are causing diesel prices to go up, which would then impact the costs of everything that’s transported. This would mean prices would still go up and cause inflation to soar despite the aggressive rate hikes.
Diesel prices are going up right now due to simple supply and demand issues. There are also disruptions to the global markets being caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the current lockdowns in China.
What’s next for diesel prices?
As the supply of diesel gas dwindles and the demand continues to surge, actions must be taken promptly. The Biden Administration has considered limiting fuel export to help with the supply and prices. President Biden recently announced that they would be releasing 15 million barrels of oil from the strategic reserve in December to increase the supply. However, there’s no clear indication this would solve, or substantively help, us with the diesel gas shortage.
It’s important to note that this fuel is used for heating and trucking, which is generally required to keep the economy going, especially in winter. Diesel keeps commerce and freight going because trucks, excavators, ships and freight trains need the energy source. If there’s a shortage of diesel, we would see higher costs for everything in the economy, from transportation to construction, at a time when the Fed continues its aggressive rate hike campaign.
What does this mean for investors?
With the stubborn inflation numbers causing stock market sell-offs as the Fed continues to raise rates to attempt to cool down the economy, it isn’t clear where to invest your money. With additional concerns of prices going up even higher due to a diesel gas shortage, there’s even more risk involved with investing in individual companies.
Many experts agree that soaring inflation will invariably worsen if fuel prices continue to rise. Although there has been a lot of attention on crude oil, diesel gas issues could hurt us as much or more. With Q.ai’s Inflation Kit, you could turn those inflation fears around with an Investment Kit that helps you profit from higher inflation. With our unique Portfolio Protection feature, you can protect yourself further against continued volatility and unforgiving downturns.
The bottom line
The diesel gas shortage could pose many challenges if the refineries don’t increase capacity or if we don’t find ways to replenish supplies. If diesel gas prices continue to go up, consumers will feel this impact as the prices of everything will continue to increase. We will continue to monitor the situation with diesel gas as it’s an urgent matter at this time.
Download Q.ai today for access to AI-powered investment strategies. When you deposit $100, we’ll add an additional $100 to your account.
Nanotechnology is advancing so rapidly these days that it seems there is a new nanotech breakthrough being reported on a daily basis. Top researchers from around the world are using nanotechnology to solve problems once considered impossible, and are even discovering new and interesting properties in our material reality along the way.
2011 alone has seen some major advances in nanotechnology applied to the energy sector, and the promise nanotech holds for renewable energy is exactly what the budding market needs to eventually overtake fossil fuels as the energy generation mode of choice.
Super Efficient Solar Nantennas
University of Missouri researcher Patrick Pinhero and collaborators have developed microscopic antennas called, “nantennas,” that capture sunlight in both the visible and near-infrared spectrum as well as heat energy to create a thin-film solar sheet capable of 90 percent efficiency—far better than the 20 percent efficiency offered by current solar panels.
Energy Generation from Sound
Researchers at Sungkyunkwan University have created microscopic strings of zinc oxide that when exposed to sound vibrate between two electrodes, thus creating a charge. “Sound power can be used for various novel applications including cellular phones that can be charged during conversations and sound-insulating walls near highways that generate electricity from the sound of passing vehicles,” says lead researcher Dr. Sang-Woo Kim.
Energy Transmission Via Nanotubes
A never-before witnessed energy effect has been observed by MIT scientists working with carbon “nanotubes.” Apparently, heat waves travel through these microscopic tubes up to 10,000 times faster than normal while picking up ambient charged particles along the way, thus creating and electric charge. This offers untold potential in energy transmission.
Focusing Energy with Nanocones
Oak Ridge National Laboratory has created microscopic zinc oxide cones, dubbed “nanocones,” that exhibit the unique property of focusing and intensifying energy at the cones’ tips. The nanocones have been applied to solar cells to boost efficiency.
Storing Energy with Nanosponges
University of Texas researchers have created carbon nano-supercapacitors called “nanosponges” which are capable of storing static-electric energy in their sponge-like pores. Like traditional supercapacitors, nansponges can deliver energy faster and more efficiently than chemical-based batteries, but at a far higher capacity. Currently, the nanosponges can store the energy equivalent of a lead-acid battery, but material improvements could put them on par with lithium-ion very soon.
Neuroscientists have begun to uncover how breathing is coordinated with other behaviors and how its rhythm may influence a variety of regions in the brain....CREDIT: ESTHER AARTS
If you’re lucky enough to live to 80, you’ll take up to a billion breaths in the course of your life, inhaling and exhaling enough air to fill about 50 Goodyear blimps or more. We take about 20,000 breaths a day, sucking in oxygen to fuel our cells and tissues, and ridding the body of carbon dioxide that builds up as a result of cellular metabolism. Breathing is so essential to life that people generally die within minutes if it stops.
It’s a behavior so automatic that we tend to take it for granted. But breathing is a physiological marvel — both extremely reliable and incredibly flexible. Our breathing rate can change almost instantaneously in response to stress or arousal and even before an increase in physical activity. And breathing is so seamlessly coordinated with other behaviors like eating, talking, laughing and sighing that you may have never even noticed how your breathing changes to accommodate them. Breathing can also influence your state of mind, as evidenced by the controlled breathing practices of yoga and other ancient meditative traditions.
In recent years, researchers have begun to unravel some of the underlying neural mechanisms of breathing and its many influences on body and mind. In the late 1980s, neuroscientists identified a network of neurons in the brainstem that sets the rhythm for respiration. That discovery has been a springboard for investigations into how the brain integrates breathing with other behaviors. At the same time, researchers have been finding evidence that breathing may influence activity across wide swaths of the brain, including ones with important roles in emotion and cognition.
“Breathing has a lot of jobs,” says Jack L. Feldman, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and coauthor of a recent article on the interplay of breathing and emotion in the Annual Review of Neuroscience. “It’s very complicated because we’re constantly changing our posture and our metabolism, and it has to be coordinated with all these other behaviors.”
Each breath a symphony of lung, muscle, brain
Every time you inhale, your lungs fill with oxygen-rich air that then diffuses into your bloodstream to be distributed throughout your body. A typical pair of human lungs contains about 500 million tiny sacs called alveoli, the walls of which are where gases pass between the airway and bloodstream. The total surface area of this interface is about 750 square feet — a bit more than the square footage of a typical one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, and a bit less than that of a racquetball court.
“The remarkable thing about mammals, including humans, is that we pack an enormous amount of surface area into our chests,” says Feldman. More surface area means more gas is exchanged per second.
But the lungs can’t do it alone. They’re essentially limp sacks of tissue. “In order for this to work, the lungs have to be pumped like a bellows,” Feldman says. And they are — with each inhalation, the diaphragm muscle at the bottom of the chest cavity contracts, moving downward about half an inch. At the same time, the intercostal muscles between the ribs move the rib cage up and out — all of which expands the lungs and draws in air. (If you’ve ever had the wind knocked out of you by a blow to the stomach, you know all about the diaphragm; and if you’ve eaten barbecued ribs, you have encountered intercostal muscles.)
At rest, these muscles contract only during inhalation. Exhalation occurs passively when the muscles relax and the lungs deflate. During exercise, different sets of muscles contract to actively force out air and speed up respiration.
Breathing requires coordinated movements of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. When these muscles contract, air is drawn into the lungs, where hundreds of millions of tiny alveoli provide a surface where oxygen can diffuse into the blood and carbon dioxide can diffuse out. With each exhalation, these muscles relax, and air is forced back out.
Unlike the heart muscle, which has pacemaker cells that set its rhythm, the muscles that control breathing take their orders from the brain. Given the life-enabling importance of those brain signals, it took a surprisingly long time to track them down. One of the first to ponder their source was Galen, the Greek physician who noticed that gladiators whose necks were broken above a certain level were unable to breathe normally. Later experiments pointed to the brainstem, and in the 1930s, the British physiologist Edgar Adrian demonstrated that the dissected brainstem of a goldfish continues to produce rhythmic electrical activity, which he believed to be the pattern-generating signal underlying respiration.
But the exact location of the brainstem respiratory-pattern generator remained unknown until the late 1980s, when Feldman and colleagues narrowed it down to a network of about 3,000 neurons in the rodent brainstem (in humans it contains about 10,000 neurons). It’s now called the preBötzinger Complex (preBötC). Neurons there spontaneously exhibit rhythmic bursts of electrical activity that, relayed through intermediate neurons, direct the muscles that control breathing.
Over the years, some people have assumed Bötzinger must have been a famous anatomist, Feldman says, perhaps a German or Austrian. But in fact the name came to him in a flash during a dinner at a scientific conference where he suspected a colleague was inappropriately about to claim the discovery for himself. Feldman clinked his glass to propose a toast and suggested naming the brain region after the wine being served, which came from the area around Bötzingen, Germany. Perhaps lubricated by said wine, the others agreed, and the name stuck. “Scientists are just as weird as anyone else,” Feldman says. “We have fun doing things like this.”
A long, deep breath can express many things: sadness, relief, resignation, yearning, exhaustion. But we humans aren’t the only ones who sigh — it’s thought that all mammals do — and it may be because sighing has an important biological function in addition to its expressive qualities.
Pinpointing breath’s rhythm setters
Much of Feldman’s subsequent research has focused on understanding exactly how neurons in the preBötC generate the breathing rhythm. This work has also laid a foundation for his lab and others to investigate how the brain orchestrates the interplay between breathing and other behaviors that require alterations in breathing.
Sighing is one interesting example. A long, deep breath can express many things: sadness, relief, resignation, yearning, exhaustion. But we humans aren’t the only ones who sigh — it’s thought that all mammals do — and it may be because sighing has an important biological function in addition to its expressive qualities. Humans sigh every few minutes, and each sigh begins with an inhale that takes in about twice as much air as a normal breath. Scientists suspect this helps pop open collapsed alveoli, the tiny chambers in the lung where gas exchange occurs, much as blowing into a latex glove pops open the fingers. Several lines of evidence support this idea: Hospital ventilators programmed to incorporate periodic sighing, for example, have been shown to improve lung function and maintain patients’ blood oxygen levels.
In a study published in 2016 in Nature, Feldman and colleagues identified four small populations of neurons that appear to be responsible for generating sighs in rodents. Two of these groups of neurons reside in a brainstem region near the preBötC, and they send signals to the other two groups, which reside inside the preBötC. When the researchers killed these preBötC neurons with a highly selective toxin, the rats ceased to sigh, but their breathing remained robust. On the other hand, when scientists injected neuropeptides that activate the neurons, the rats sighed 10 times more frequently. In essence, the researchers conclude, these four groups of neurons form a circuit that tells preBötC to interrupt its regular program of normal-sized breaths and order up a deeper breath.
The preBötC also has a role in coordinating other behaviors with breathing. One of Feldman’s collaborators on the sighing paper, neuroscientist Kevin Yackle, and colleagues recently used mice to investigate interactions between breathing and vocalizations. When separated from their nest, newborn mice make ultrasonic cries, too high-pitched for humans to hear. There are typically several cries at regular intervals within a single breath, not unlike the syllables in human speech, says Yackle, who’s now at the University of California, San Francisco. “You have this slower breathing rhythm and then nested within it you have this faster vocalization rhythm,” he says.
To figure out how this works, the researchers worked their way backwards from the larynx, the part of the throat involved in producing sound. They used anatomical tracers to identify the neurons that control the larynx and follow their connections back to a cluster of cells in the brainstem, in an area they named the intermediate reticular oscillator (iRO). Using a variety of techniques, the researchers found that killing or inhibiting iRO neurons removes the ability to vocalize a cry, and stimulating them increases the number of cries per breath.
When the researchers dissected out slices of brain tissue with iRO neurons, the cells kept firing in a regular pattern. “These neurons produce a rhythm that’s exactly like the cries in the animal, where it’s faster than but nested within the preBötC breathing rhythm,” Yackle says.
Breathing appears to have far-reaching influences on the brain, including on regions with roles in cognition and emotion, such as the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex. These effects may originate from signals generated by the brainstem breathing center, preBötC; from sensory inputs via the vagus nerve or olfactory system; or in response to levels of oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood.
Additional experiments suggested that iRO neurons help integrate vocalizations with breathing by telling the preBötC to make tiny inhalations that interrupt exhalation — enabling a series of brief cries to fit neatly within a single exhaled breath. That is, rhythmic crying isn’t produced by a series of exhalations, but rather from one long exhalation with several interruptions.
The findings, reported earlier this year in Neuron, may have implications for understanding human language. The number of syllables per second falls within a relatively narrow range across all human languages, Yackle says. Perhaps, he suggests, that’s due to constraints imposed by the need to coordinate vocalizations with breathing.
Setting the pace in the brain
Recent studies have suggested that breathing can influence people’s performance on a surprisingly wide range of lab tests. Where someone is in the cycle of inhalation and exhalation can influence abilities as diverse as detecting a faint touch and distinguishing three-dimensional objects. One study found that people tend to inhale just before a cognitive task — and that doing so tends to improve performance. Several have found that it is only breathing through the nose that has these effects; breathing through the mouth does not.
One emerging idea about how this might work focuses on well-documented rhythmic oscillations of electrical activity in the brain. These waves, often measured with electrodes on the scalp, capture the cumulative activity of thousands of neurons, and for decades some neuroscientists have argued that they reflect communication between far-flung brain regions that could underlie important aspects of cognition. They could be, for example, how the brain integrates sensory information processed separately in auditory and visual parts of the brain to produce what we experience as a seamless perception of a scene’s sounds and sights. Some scientists have even proposed that such synchronized activity could be the basis of consciousness itself (needless to say, this has been hard to prove).
Growing evidence suggests breathing may set the pace for some of these oscillations. In experiments with rodents, several research teams have found that the breathing rhythm influences waves of activity in the hippocampus, a region critical for learning and memory. During wakefulness, the collective electrical activity of neurons in the hippocampus rises and falls at a consistent rate — typically between six and 10 times per second. This theta rhythm, as it’s called, occurs in all animals that have been studied, including humans.
Not only does the respiration rhythm synchronize activity in brain regions involved in emotion and memory, it can also affect people’s performance on tasks involving emotion and memory.
In a 2016 study, neuroscientist Adriano Tort at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil and colleagues set out to study theta oscillations but noticed that their electrodes were also picking up another rhythm, a slower one with about three peaks per second, roughly the same as a resting mouse’s respiration rate. At first they worried it was an artifact, Tort says, perhaps caused by an unstable electrode or the animal’s movements. But additional experiments convinced them that not only was the rhythmic activity real and synched with respiration, but also that it acted like a metronome to set the pace for the faster theta oscillations in the hippocampus.
Around the same time, neuroscientist Christina Zelano and colleagues reported similar findings in humans. Using data from electrodes placed by surgeons on the brains of epilepsy patients to monitor their seizures, the researchers found that natural breathing synchronizes oscillations within several brain regions, including the hippocampus and the amygdala, an important player in emotional processing. This synchronizing effect diminished when the researchers asked subjects to breathe through their mouth, suggesting that sensory feedback from nasal airflow plays a key role.
Not only does the respiration rhythm synchronize activity in brain regions involved in emotion and memory, it can also affect people’s performance on tasks involving emotion and memory, Zelano and colleagues found. In one experiment they monitored subjects’ respiration and asked them to identify the emotion expressed by people in a set of photos developed by psychologists to test emotion recognition. Subjects were quicker to identify fearful faces when the photo appeared as they were taking a breath compared to during exhalation. In a different test, subjects more accurately remembered whether they’d seen a photo previously when it was presented as they inhaled. Again, the effects were strongest when subjects breathed through the nose.
More recent work suggests the respiratory rhythm could synchronize activity not just within but also between brain regions. In one study, neuroscientists Nikolaos Karalis and Anton Sirota found that the respiration rate synchronizes activity between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex in sleeping mice. This synchronization could play a role in making long-term memories, Karalis and Sirota suggest in a paper published earlier this year in Nature Communications. Many neuroscientists think memories initially form in the hippocampus before being transferred during sleep to the cortex for long-term storage — a process thought to require synchronized activity between the hippocampus and cortex.
For Tort, such findings suggest there may be important links between respiration and brain function, but he says more work is needed to connect the dots. The evidence that breathing influences brain oscillations is strong, he says. The challenge now is figuring out what that means for behavior, cognition and emotion.
Controlled breath, calm mind?
For millennia, practitioners of yoga and other ancient meditation traditions have practiced controlled breathing as a means of influencing their state of mind. In recent years, researchers have become increasingly interested in the biological mechanisms of these effects and how they might be applied to help people with anxiety and mood disorders.
One challenge has been separating the effects of breathing from other aspects of these practices, says Helen Lavretsky, a psychiatrist at UCLA. “It’s really hard to distinguish what’s most effective when you’re doing this multicomponent intervention where there’s stretching and movement and visualization and chanting,” she says. Not to mention the cultural and spiritual components many people attach to the practice.
For many years, Lavretsky has collaborated with neuroscientists and others to investigate how different types of meditation affect the brain and biological markers of stress and immune function. She has found, among other things, that meditation can improve performance on lab tests of memory and alter brain connectivity in older people with mild cognitive impairment, a potential precursor to Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. In more recent studies, which have yet to be published, she’s moved toward investigating whether the breath control methods alone can help.
“Even though I’m a psychiatrist, my research is on how to avoid [prescribing] drugs,” says Lavretsky, who is also a certified yoga instructor. She thinks breathing exercises might be a good alternative for many people, especially with more research on which breathing techniques work best for which conditions and how they might be tailored to individuals. “We all have this tool, we just have to learn how to use it,” she says.
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