We have been waiting with bated breath for the results of Wayne State University’s study on the potential for us to influence our body’s response to cold exposure, and are excited to finally share them. The full study is published in the science journal NeuroImage, and you can read it here, but for most this is an Inscrutable jumble of technical jargon, so below is the gist in layman’s terms.
We all have innate mechanisms to deal with the cold: vasoconstriction; increased energy metabolism; pain signals telling us to not do whatever it is we are doing. These are so-called ‘bottom-up’ processes— environmental stimuli hit the periphery, and dictate an automatic physiological response. It works, to a point, but it is very limited and strictly regulated.
Some additional endogenous operations work in the opposite direction: so-called ‘higher order cortical brain areas’ send out signals that have some endogenous thermoregulatory capacity. But these ‘top-down’ impulses were thought to play an extremely limited role in managing adverse stimuli. Previous studies have measured activity of these areas, and found their contributions to be negligible.
However, a select few individuals display an extreme tolerance to cold that far exceeds what these bottom-up mechanisms could effectuate, and we happen to know one such individual very well. Wim’s seemingly superhuman ability makes him the ideal subject for research into these other, top-down pathways. Duly aware of these dueling mechanisms, the researchers at Wayne State set up a study that accounts for both.
They subjected Wim to intermittent bouts of mild hypothermia, using a specially designed whole-body suit that has a network of tiny tubes woven into the fabric, allowing for temperature-controlled water and the capacity to measure skin temperature to within 0.1 °C. They then used PET/CT imaging and fMRI scans to measure both the periphery and whatever is happening in the central nervous system.
So what did that show? When Wim does the WHM breathing technique, the higher order cortical brain areas are significantly more active. (These are also associated with self-reflection and internal focus, inducing a ‘here and now’ state that whisks away worry about the past and future.) Second, Wim appears to activate regions in the periaqueductal gray; a part of the brain that is the primary control center for pain suppression. This is a promising discovery that could lead to a potential role for the WHM as endogenous painkiller, and reflects results we already see today in people who effectively use the WHM to combat conditions like fibromyalgia. Finally, the measurements showed that the WHM breathing increases glucose consumption, in turn generating heat that warms circulating blood. This at least partly explains why Wim’s core body temperature does not drop.
The results clearly demonstrate the capacity of certain regions of the brain to contribute substantial top-down regulation of the body’s response to averse environmental stimuli, upending the hitherto accepted theory that this function was almost exclusively reserved for peripherally-induced processes. As with most good studies, the answers have created many new questions. As such this serves as a solid basis for further research, which we hope will follow very soon.
You can read a full breakdown of the study here.