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Bringing breathlessness research to life

Earlier this summer, the Royal Society hosted an exhibition called Breathing with your Brain. Lucy, a research assistant at the University of Oxford, explains what it was all about.

The Royal Society summer science exhibition is a celebration of cutting-edge research. Scientists from across the UK produce creative, exciting and interactive exhibits to engage people with their work. It’s free to attend, is open to everyone, and takes place every summer. This year our Breathe Oxford research team set off to showcase our exhibit Breathing with your Brain.

How the brain impacts breathlessness

The brain generates our whole experience of the world, so it’s not surprising that looking at the brain could help us treat breathlessness better. Indeed, it's becoming increasingly clear that this process is not just about what is happening in the lungs. As a research group, we are interested in understanding how brain networks generate our perception of breathlessness.

Using state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computational modelling, we are discovering that everything from our mood to our past experiences can change how we see and experience our breathing.

So, when we started to produce the summer science exhibit, we set ourselves the aim of increasing awareness of breathlessness. We wanted to change the way people think about their brain’s involvement in breathing and get people excited about the techniques we use to answer our research questions. 

Experiencing breathlessness

To get a real experience of breathlessness, we invited people to take on something we call the steppatron. You would use an exercise step while having a clip over your nose and breathing through a straw. It’s an amazing process to observe; healthy people step up to the task with great enthusiasm but quickly appreciate the huge impact a lack of air can have.  

The breathe Oxford Team gathered around one of the exhibit items.

As neuroscientists, we use magnetic resonance imaging to see what’s happening inside the brain when we are breathless. To bring this to life, we created an interactive 3D model of the brain and lungs, fondly named 3D Charlie.

By pressing the 'calm breathing' button you can see the areas of the brain involved in normal breathing, the action of the lungs and the signals being sent between brain and lungs.

In comparison, when you press the 'panicked breathing' button, you can see that there are a far wider range of brain areas involved when the brain perceives something to be wrong.

This includes areas such as the insula cortex, which we know is very important in processing emotion and our awareness of our body.

How we use maths to treat breathlessness

The conversation between the brain and lungs, and between individual brain areas, is really important to us for understanding how the brain influences breathlessness. We use mathematics to model how we think the conversation is happening and then compare this to what we see when we observe MRI images of the brain.

Watch our animation to find out more about how maths could change the way we think about and treat breathlessness. (You’ll love it even if you hate maths – we promise!)

Over 7 days, almost 13,000 people visited the exhibit. For our team, it was a rewarding experience to speak with people who were so engaged. It really reinforced to us that everyone has either experienced breathlessness or knows someone who it affects.

Understanding how the brain influences breathlessness could really help people who are affected by it. And who knows, while we were there, maybe we inspired the future scientists and researchers of tomorrow who will continue our work on breathlessness.

Breathe Oxford regularly get involved with science fairs and exhibitions, so follow us on Twitter to see what we’re up to next. If you want to delve a little deeper into the science of breathing with your brain, please check out our latest review paper.

You can also learn more about breathlessness by reading the British Lung Foundation's health information. 

Read our health information about breathlessness 

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12 August 2019