Study: Brain structures contribute to asthma

MADISON -- The mere mention of a stressful word like "wheeze" can activate two brain regions in asthmatics during an attack, and this brain activity may be associated with more severe asthma symptoms, according to a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers and collaborators.

The study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Online, August 29, 2005), reveals a functional link between emotion processing centers in the brain and certain physiological processes relevant to disease.

UW-Madison psychology professor Richard Davidson, an expert on emotions; and UW-Madison medicine professor William Busse, an expert on asthma; are senior co-authors on the study. Melissa Rosenkranz, a graduate student at the UW-Madison Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, is the lead author.

"While this study was small, it shows how important specific brain circuits can be in modulating inflammation," says 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 stress-responsive disorders."

Previous studies and clinical evidence have shown that stress and emotional turmoil adversely affect people with inflammatory diseases like asthma. And signs of inflammation have been shown to affect the brain. But 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 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

Contact: Richard Davidson
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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