A new study conducted by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, published in the journal Nature, has found that the body and mind are directly linked through the brain’s structure. The study indicates that areas in the brain that control movement are also involved in thinking and planning, as well as controlling involuntary bodily functions such as blood pressure and heartbeat. The researchers suggest that calming the body can also calm the mind, and practices such as meditation and breathing exercises can be helpful for people with anxiety.
The study, which was conducted using MRI scans of the brains of volunteers, showed that certain networks in the brain are connected between areas responsible for movement and those responsible for thought processes. The researchers found that when a person is feeling anxious or stressed, these connections become over-activated, creating an imbalance and leading to physical symptoms such as an increased heart rate or tense muscles. By calming down the body with relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises or meditation, it can also calm down the mind due to this connection between bodily processes and thinking.
The study also discovered that parts of the brain area that are not directly involved in movement are strongly connected to other areas of the brain that control pain, thinking, planning, and control of internal organs and functions. The newly identified network has been named the Somato-Cognitive Action Network (SCAN).
The researchers believe that the network may have started as a simpler system to integrate movement with physiology and has since been upgraded to integrate more complex cognitive elements as humans have evolved. The findings of the study may help explain why anxiety makes some people want to pace back and forth, why stimulating the vagus nerve may alleviate depression, and why people who exercise regularly report a more positive outlook on life.
The researchers scanned the brains of a newborn, a 1-year-old, and a 9-year-old, and analyzed data collected from nine monkeys. They found that the network was not detectable in the newborn, but it was evident in the 1-year-old and nearly adult-like in the 9-year-old. The monkeys had a smaller, more rudimentary system without the extensive connections seen in humans.
The researchers also found that the system is highly conserved across species, suggesting it has an important function in both humans and animals. They concluded that this brain network plays a key role in regulating stress responses, such as fight-or-flight reactions. The findings of the study provide new insight into how anxiety develops over time and why exercise can be beneficial for mental health. Further research will help to better understand how this ancient neural system affects behavior and emotions in response to stressors.