Respiratory sensations such as breathlessness are prevalent in many diseases and are amplified by increased levels of anxiety. Cortical activation in response to inspiratory occlusions in high- and low-anxious individuals was found different in previous studies using the respiratory-related evoked potential method. However, specific brain areas showed different activation patterns remained unknown in these studies. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to compare cortical and subcortical neural substrates of respiratory sensation in response to inspiratory mechanical occlusion stimuli between high- and low-anxious individuals using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In addition, associations between brain activation patterns and levels of anxiety, and breathlessness were examined. Thirty-four (17 high- and 17 low-anxious) healthy non-smoking adults with normal lung function completed questionnaires on anxiety (State Trait Anxiety Inventory - State), and participated in a transient inspiratory occlusion fMRI experiment. The participants breathed with a customized face-mask while respiration was repeatedly interrupted by a transient inspiratory occlusion of 150-msec, delivered every 2 to 4 breaths. Breathlessness was assessed by self-report. At least 32 occluded breaths were collected for data analysis. The results showed that compared to the low-anxious group, the high-anxious individuals demonstrated significantly greater neural activations in the hippocampus, insula, and middle cingulate gyrus in response to inspiratory occlusions. Moreover, a significant relationship was found between anxiety levels and activations of the right inferior parietal gyrus, and the right precuneus. Additionally, breathlessness levels were significantly associated with activations of the bilateral thalamus, bilateral insula and bilateral cingulate gyrus. The above evidences support stronger recruitment of emotion-related cortical and subcortical brain areas in higher anxious individuals, and thus these areas play an important role in respiratory mechanosensation mediated by anxiety.
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