Can Worsen Symptoms of Asthma
link between emotion processing centers in the brain and certain
physiological processes relevant to disease
has been revealed in a recent study by University of Wisconsin-Madison
researches and collaborators. This study, appearing in the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences this month, indicates that
the mention of a stressful word like "wheeze" can activate
two brain areas in asthmatics during an attack and that this brain
activity may be associated with more severe asthma symptoms.
"While this study was small, it shows how important specific
brain circuits can be in modulating inflammation," says
Richard Davidson, director of the affective neuroscience laboratory
and the Waisman Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior. "The
data suggest potential future targets for the development of
drugs and behavioral interventions to control asthma and other
While studies done in the past and previous clinical evidence
has shown that stress and emotional disorder negatively affect
people with inflammatory diseases like asthma, and signs of inflammation
have been shown to affect the brain, until now, nobody knew exactly
what brain circuits were involved in these seemingly intertwined
emotional and immune events or how the circuits might influence
the severity of an acute asthma response.
Researchers used functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of six
people with mild asthma who were asked
to inhale ragweed or dust-mite extracts. The asthmatics were
then shown three types of words: asthma-related (such as "wheeze"),
non-asthma negative (such as "loneliness") and neutral
(such as "curtains"). Shortly after, researchers measured
lung function in the subjects as well as molecular signs of inflammation
in their sputum.
The fMRI scans revealed that the asthma-related terms stimulated
robust responses in two brain regions--the anterior cingulate
cortex and the insula--that were strongly correlated with measures
of lung function and inflammation. The other types of words were
not strongly associated with lung function or inflammation.
The two brain structures are involved in transmitting information
about the physiological condition of the body, like shortness
of breath and when the body is experiencing pain, says Davidson,
and they have strong connections with other brain structures
essential in processing emotional information.
"In asthmatics, the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula
may be hyper-responsive to emotional and physiological signals,
like inflammation, which may in turn influence the severity of
symptoms," says Davidson.
The researchers suspect that other brain regions may also be
involved in the asthma-stress interaction.
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