The end of panic attacks? A cure may be on the way after new brain discovery

January 12, 2024

Scientists say they have discovered a key brain pathway that could pave the way for new treatments for panic attacks, reports the New York Post.

Researchers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California found a brain circuit consisting of neurons that regulate panic-like symptoms in mice. Their findings were published on Thursday, January 4, in the journal, Nature Neuroscience.

The scientists set out to map the regions, neurons, and connections in the brain that mediate panic attacks: “Previously, we thought the amygdala, known as the brain’s fear center, was mainly responsible—but even people who have damage to their amygdala can still experience panic attacks, so we knew we needed to look elsewhere,” senior study author Sung Han, an associate professor at Salk, said in a statement.

“Now, we’ve found a specific brain circuit outside of the amygdala that is linked to panic attacks and could inspire new panic disorder treatments tha

An estimated 11% of Americans experience a panic attack each year, according to the Cleveland Clinic, which reports that 2% to 3% of the U.S. population suffers from a panic disorder.

Symptoms include overwhelming fear, sweaty palms, shortness of breath, and a rapid heart rate.

Salk researchers focused their efforts on the lateral parabrachial nucleus, a portion of the brain that relays sensory information. This brain area produces the pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide, which regulates stress responses.

The team studied the PBL’s role in generating panic and in spurring emotional and physical changes in mice.

“Emotional and stress-related behaviors have been associated with PACAP-expressing neurons in the past,” explains co-first study author Sukjae Kang, a senior research associate in Han’s lab.

“By mimicking panic attacks in the mice, we were able to watch those neurons’ activity and discover a unique connection between the PACAP brain circuit and panic disorder,” Kang adds.

The researchers found that panic symptoms could be lessened by inhibiting PACAP signaling.

Now, they want to turn their attention to the connection between anxiety and panic.

Panic attacks can come on suddenly and for no apparent reason, Han shares, while anxiety disorders typically have clear triggers.

“Because anxiety seems to be operating conversely to the panic brain circuit, it would be interesting to look at the interaction between anxiety and panic; since we need to explain now how people with anxiety disorder have a higher tendency to experience panic attack,” Han says.

Research contact: @nypost