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Researchers at the Salk Institute in California have made a groundbreaking discovery that may pave the way for the creation of novel medications for panic attacks prevention. By identifying a distinct brain circuit comprising specialized neurons in mice, the team envisions the potential manipulation of this circuit for the effective management of panic disorder.

Suppressing certain neural signals can alleviate panic symptoms

The researchers identified a specific brain region as the trigger for panic, leading to physical and emotional reactions. Additionally, they found that suppressing specific neural signals could alleviate panic symptoms, suggesting potential for developing drugs to treat panic disorder.

Salk researchers aimed to identify brain regions and connections related to panic attacks to support the development of future treatments. Panic disorder individuals often undergo sudden, intense episodes leading to symptoms such as rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, sweaty hands and fear.

The study focused on mapping brain regions, particularly the lateral parabrachial nucleus (PBL) in the brain stem, known as the alarm center. The PBL regulates essential functions such as body temperature, breathing, and heart rate. The researchers discovered that the PBL triggers panic inducing physical and emotional changes. Moreover, this brain region produces the neuropeptide PACAP, a crucial regulator of stress responses.

According to co-first author Sukjae Kang, emotional and stress-induced behaviors have previously been linked to neurons that express PACAP. Through inducing panic attacks in mice, researchers observed the activity of these neurons and identified a distinct correlation between the PACAP brain circuit and panic disorder.

PACAP release to dorsal raphe triggers panic symptoms

Researchers found that neurons expressing the neuropeptide PACAP become activated, releasing PACAP messengers to the dorsal raphe, where neurons with PACAP receptors are located. This activation triggers panic-associated symptoms, revealing a crucial link between panic disorder and the PACAP brain circuit, advancing our understanding of its mechanisms.

The senior author of the study, Dr. Sung Han from the Salk Institute, highlights distinctions between panic disorder and anxiety. Despite both being anxiety disorders, panic disorder stands out due to its ability to evoke physical symptoms like shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, and rapid heart rate.