Have you ever grappled with overwhelming and irrational fear, your palms getting sweaty, struggling with paralysing shortness of breath, and sensing your heart rate skyrocket? If so, you might have experienced a panic attack.
For those who face these challenges regularly, it could be indicative of panic disorder. According to the Health Insurance website, panic disorder has a higher prevalence among women, which is two to three times more than men.
In a recent study published on January 4, 2024, in the scientific journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers delved into the origins and the brain circuit responsible for these panic attacks. They identified a specific part of the brain that acts as the conductor during these crises.
The brain’s alarm centre comes into play during these crises.
“Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder characterised by the repetition of panic attacks and the fear of their occurrence,” as described by the Health Insurance website. Panic attacks, also referred to as acute anxiety attacks, manifest as “the sudden onset of intense fear, anxiety, or apprehension, a feeling of imminent catastrophe, often associated with fear.”
However, researchers have pinpointed the origin of these crises. Sung Han, the study’s author, stated, “We thought the amygdala, known as the brain’s fear centre, was primarily responsible, but even people with damaged amygdalae can still experience panic attacks, so we knew we had to look elsewhere. Now we have discovered a specific brain circuit.”
Through studies on rodent brains, researchers found that the lateral parabrachial nucleus, known as the “brain’s alarm centre,” plays a crucial role in conducting panic attacks. The scientific team revealed that this brain region produces a neuropeptide called PACAP (pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide), the primary regulator of stress responses.
Hope for treating panic attacks.
The study’s goal was not only to understand the origins but also to find potential remedies for panic attacks. The team discovered that by inhibiting PACAP signalling, they could disrupt the flow of PACAP neuropeptides and reduce panic symptoms—a promising development for the future of specific panic disorder treatments.
To create an effective treatment for these attacks, researchers emphasised the need to differentiate between panic and anxiety. While panic disorder is part of the anxiety disorders family, they exhibit differences. Physical symptoms and uncontrollable, spontaneous crises characterise panic disorder, setting it apart from other anxiety disorders with its unique signals and brain triggers.
Understanding these distinctions will pave the way for ongoing research into treatments. Sung Han concludes, “As anxiety seems to work in the opposite direction of the panic brain circuit, it would be interesting to examine the interaction between anxiety and panic, as we now need to explain why people with anxiety disorders are more prone to panic attacks.”
This article was syndicated from Marie Claire France
Translated and adapted by Praise Vandeh, Marie Claire Nigeria Content Writer