Dyspnoea and the brain

Respir Med. 2011 Jun;105(6):809-17. doi: 10.1016/j.rmed.2010.12.022. Epub 2011 Feb 3.


Chronic dyspnoea is a devastating symptom that debilitates millions of people worldwide. It causes a large burden on both patient and carer, and significant costs to society and health services. Treatment options are limited. Much effort has been directed at optimising lung function and improving exercise capacity, however, the brain mechanisms underlying dyspnoea perception have received less attention. In this review, we focus on cognitive and affective aspects of dyspnoea and discuss how novel neuroimaging methods can provide quantitative measures of these subjective sensations. We draw parallels with the more advanced field of chronic pain, and explain some of the challenges faced when imaging dyspnoea. To date, brain mechanisms of dyspnoea have been investigated in a handful of studies by a limited number of authors. These have found consistent activation in the insular cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala. Novel neuroimaging methods and an improved understanding of perceptual mechanisms underlying dyspnoea now position us to transform dyspnoea research. Future research should investigate how brain regions associated with dyspnoea interact, as well as accurately correlate this neuronal activation with reliable behavioural measures. A better understanding of the brain processes underlying dyspnoea perception will lead to new therapies that will improve quality of life for a very large group of patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Dyspnea / physiopathology*
  • Dyspnea / psychology
  • Dyspnea / rehabilitation
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nociceptors / physiology*
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Pain / psychology
  • Pain / rehabilitation
  • Quality of Life / psychology