Faculty + Staff

What’s so inspiring about respiration?

Neuroscientist Jack Feldman will explain why breathing matters at UCLA’s 125th Faculty Research Lecture

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Jack Feldman
Elaine Schmidt/UCLA

Jack Feldman has devoted his career to unraveling the brain’s role in breathing.

Equal parts audacity and hard work define UCLA neuroscientist Jack Feldman’s impressive career.

As a postdoctoral student attending a scientific meeting in Stockholm in 1979, the Brooklyn, New York native presented his research disputing a popular theory. He’d identified a new cluster of nerve cells as a key driver in how the brain is wired to control breathing. A top investigator took the microphone and loudly ridiculed Feldman’s findings.

When his nemesis claimed a year later at a meeting in Germany that he’d discovered the same brain site, Feldman worried the fellow would name the region after himself. At a banquet with 100 other scientists, Feldman stood up after dinner and clinked his glass. 

“Let’s make a toast to this newly discovered brain region,” he announced, as his rival fumed. Casting wildly about the room, his eyes landed on a bottle of wine from the nearby village of Bötzinger. “Let’s name it after this bottle of wine and call it the “Bötzinger Complex.”

Years later, Feldman showed that an adjacent brain area was the main engine for breathing rhythm and dubbed it the “preBötzinger Complex.”

At the 125th Faculty Research Lecture, Feldman, now a distinguished professor of neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, will share the series of remarkable revelations he has made about breathing and the brain in a talk titled “Breathing Matters.”

Feldman’s findings have captured the attention of top scientific journals and the popular press alike.

The New York Times and Scientific American, for example, explored his team’s collaborative effort with the Krasnow lab at Stanford in a 2017 Science study revealing how taking deep, slow breaths may induce tranquility. Their 2016 study, published in Nature, pinpointing the origin of the sighing reflex snagged the interest of National Public Radio and The Guardian.

“One of the holy grails in neuroscience is figuring out how the brain controls behavior,” Feldman said. “Our findings offer insights into mechanisms that may underlie much more complex behaviors.”

Now Feldman, a self-admitted exercise addict who squeezes in 5:30 a.m. spinning workouts on his Peloton bike at home before heading to the lab, is trying to slow down.

Well, not personally. He’s teaching mice how to meditate.

The project is in partnership with UCLA psychiatrist Helen Lavretsky, who studies the benefits of yoga and meditation in people at risk for developing dementia, and in their overworked caregivers.

Feldman’s role is training the mice to breathe more slowly on command to test whether and how it improves mood. His goal? To identify the neural mechanisms that enable meditation to reduce stress and panic, and perhaps, even boost brain function. 

“New data suggests that breathing rhythms play a role in cognitive function,” Feldman said. “We are in a good position to not only uncover the underlying mechanisms, but ultimately learn how to exploit them.”

Nearly four decades after Feldman christened the Bötzinger Complex after a bottle of wine, his enthusiasm for research remains uncorked.

“Science is a blast to do,” Feldman said. “It’s so much fun to perform experiments like these and make discoveries that advance our understanding of the brain.”

The Faculty Research Lecture — a UCLA tradition since 1925 — is free and open to the public and will be held on Oct. 17 from 3 to 5:30 p.m. in the Schoenberg Music Building.

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