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BackgroundAsthma is a chronic inflammatory disease noteworthy for its vulnerability to stress and emotion-induced symptom intensification. The fact that psychological stress and mood and anxiety disorders appear to increase expression of asthma symptoms suggests that neural signaling between the brain and lung at least partially modulates the inflammatory response and lung function. However, the precise nature of the neural pathways implicated in modulating asthma symptoms is unknown. Moreover, the extent to which variations in neural signaling predict different phenotypes of disease expression has not been studied.Methods and ResultsWe used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure neural signals in response to asthma-specific emotional cues, following allergen exposure, in asthmatics with a dual response to allergen challenge (significant inflammation), asthmatics with only an immediate response (minimal inflammation), and healthy controls. The anterior insular cortex was differentially activated by asthma-relevant cues, compared to general negative cues, during the development of the late phase of the dual response in asthmatics. Moreover, the degree of this differential activation predicted changes in airway inflammation.ConclusionsThese findings indicate that neurophenotypes for asthma may be identifiable by neural reactivity of brain circuits known to be involved in processing emotional information. Those with greater activation in the anterior insula, in response to asthma-relevant psychological stimuli, exhibit greater inflammatory signals in the lung and increased severity of disease and may reflect a subset of asthmatics most vulnerable to the development of psychopathology. This approach offers an entirely new target for potential therapeutic intervention in asthma.
Asthma, like many inflammatory disorders, is affected by psychological stress, suggesting that reciprocal modulation may occur between peripheral factors regulating inflammation and central neural circuitry underlying emotion and stress reactivity. Despite suggestions that emotional factors may modulate processes of inflammation in asthma and, conversely, that peripheral inflammatory signals influence the brain, the neural circuitry involved remains elusive. Here we show, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, that activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and insula to asthma-relevant emotional, compared with valence-neutral stimuli, is associated with markers of inflammation and airway obstruction in asthmatic subjects exposed to antigen. This activation accounts for > or =40% of the variance in the peripheral markers and suggests a neural basis for emotion-induced modulation of airway disease in asthma. The anterior cingulate cortex and insula have been implicated in the affective evaluation of sensory stimulation, regulation of homeostatic responses, and visceral perception. In individuals with asthma and other stress-related conditions, these brain regions may be hyperresponsive to disease-specific emotional and afferent physiological signals, which may contribute to the dysregulation of peripheral processes, such as inflammation.