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Patients with asthma who wheeze and gasp for breath under emotional stress can fault parts of their brain. During the study, 6 participants with mild allergic asthma were exposed to 2 different substances, one that caused muscle constriction and a second that caused inflammation.
At the 1-and 4-hour marks of exposure, the participants had a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to document the brain's activity during the muscle-constriction stage and then at the inflammation stage of the attack. During the MRI, the participants were asked to read words displayed on a screen. Some of the words were emotionally neutral, some were likely to trigger negative emotions, and some were specifically associated with asthma attacks.
The results of the study showed that brain activity early on in the muscle-contracting phase of a breathing attack differed from that in the latter, inflammatory phase. Furthermore, words specifically associated with asthma attacks caused heightened activity in the inflammatory phase in areas of the brain that control emotions. This same reaction was not apparent when the patients were shown neutral or negative words, according to the study results reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (September 13, 2005).