Patients with COPD suffer from chronic dyspnea, which is commonly perceived as highly aversive and threatening. Moreover, COPD is often accompanied by disease-specific fears and avoidance of physical activity. However, little is known about structural brain changes in patients with COPD and respective relations with disease duration and disease-specific fears.
This study investigated structural brain changes in patients with COPD and their relation with disease duration, fear of dyspnea, and fear of physical activity. We used voxel-based morphometric analysis of MRI images to measure differences in generalized cortical degeneration and regional gray matter between 30 patients with moderate to severe COPD and 30 matched healthy control subjects. Disease-specific fears were assessed by the COPD anxiety questionnaire.
Patients with COPD showed no generalized cortical degeneration, but decreased gray matter in posterior cingulate cortex (whole-brain analysis) as well as in anterior and midcingulate cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala (regions-of-interest analyses). Patients’ reductions in gray matter in anterior cingulate cortex were negatively correlated with disease duration, fear of dyspnea, and fear of physical activity. Mediation analysis revealed that the relation between disease duration and reduced gray matter of the anterior cingulate was mediated by fear of physical activity.
Patients with COPD demonstrated gray matter decreases in brain areas relevant for the processing of dyspnea, fear, and antinociception. These structural brain changes were partly related to longer disease duration and greater disease-specific fears, which might contribute to a less favorable course of the disease.