Dyspnea is the major source of disability in COPD. In COPD, environmental cues (eg, the prospect of having to climb stairs) become associated with dyspnea and may trigger dyspnea even before physical activity commences. We hypothesized that brain activation relating to such cues would be different between patients with COPD and healthy control subjects, reflecting greater engagement of emotional mechanisms in patients.
Using functional MRI (FMRI), we investigated brain responses to dyspnea-related word cues in 41 patients with COPD and 40 healthy age-matched control subjects. We combined these findings with scores on self-report questionnaires, thus linking the FMRI task with clinically relevant measures. This approach was adapted from studies in pain that enabled identification of brain networks responsible for pain processing despite absence of a physical challenge.
Patients with COPD demonstrated activation in the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex, which correlated with the visual analog scale (VAS) response to word cues. This activity independently correlated with patient responses on questionnaires of depression, fatigue, and dyspnea vigilance. Activation in the anterior insula, lateral prefrontal cortex, and precuneus correlated with the VAS dyspnea scale but not with the questionnaires.
The findings suggest that engagement of the emotional circuitry of the brain is important for interpretation of dyspnea-related cues in COPD and is influenced by depression, fatigue, and vigilance. A heightened response to salient cues is associated with increased symptom perception in chronic pain and asthma, and the findings suggest that such mechanisms may be relevant in COPD.