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Panic! In the fMRI Scanner

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticSeptember 26, 2009 11:30 PM


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Continuing the theme of interesting single case reports, I was pleased to see a paper about brain activity in someone who suffered a panic attack in the middle of an fMRI brain scan experiment.

The unfortunate volunteer, a 46 year old woman, was taking part in an experiment looking at restless-leg syndrome. The scan lasted 40 minutes, and everything was going smoothly until quite near the end, when out of the blue, she had a panic attack.

Obviously, the scan had to be abandoned - as soon as the volunteer pressed the emergency "panic button", they stopped the scan and got her out of the MRI. (This kind of thing is why we have such buttons!) However, they decided to see what happened in the woman's brain as the panic started using the data they acquired up to that point.

Here's what they found: the top graph here shows her heart rate. It starts increasing a bit and then spikes, which shows exactly when the attack occurred. What about the brain? Well, amygdala and left insula activity sort of increase around this time. A bit. If you stare at the lines hard enough.

If you believe they did, it makes sense because the amygdala is known to be involved in anxiety (amongst other things) while the insula is responsible for the perception of the body's internal state, which is rather out of whack during a panic attack.

What doesn't make sense is the middle temporal gyrus bit, which was statistically the only part of the brain where activity was significantly correlated with heart rate (in whole-brain analysis). That region is not believed to have anything to do with panic, and to be honest, it's probably just a fluke.

This is only the second published report about panic during fMRI. There was one previous paper from 2006 about an attack in someone with a history of panic, which also found amygdala activation. But there are sure to be others out there which haven't made it into print - anxiety and panic during scans is not unheard of (the scanner is rather claustrophobic). It would be interesting to get more data on this, because it's obviously rather hard to research real-life panic attacks, on account of them being unpredictable.


Spiegelhalder, K., Hornyak, M., Kyle, S., Paul, D., Blechert, J., Seifritz, E., Hennig, J., Tebartz van Elst, L., Riemann, D., & Feige, B. (2009). Cerebral correlates of heart rate variations during a spontaneous panic attack in the fMRI scanner Neurocase, 1-8 DOI: 10.1080/13554790903066909

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