A study out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has discovered that activation of particular areas of the brain after an emotional message can exacerbate an asthma attack. The research was conducted under the leadership of UW-Madison psychology professor Richard Davidson and medicine professor William Busse:
Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of six mildly asthmatic people who were asked to inhale ragweed or dust-mite extracts. Subjects 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, such as shortness of breath and pain levels, 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.