Functional neuroanatomy in panic disorder: Status quo of the research

World J Psychiatry. 2017 Mar 22;7(1):12-33. doi: 10.5498/wjp.v7.i1.12.


Aim: To provide an overview of the current research in the functional neuroanatomy of panic disorder.

Methods: Panic disorder (PD) is a frequent psychiatric disease. Gorman et al (1989; 2000) proposed a comprehensive neuroanatomical model of PD, which suggested that fear- and anxiety-related responses are mediated by a so-called "fear network" which is centered in the amygdala and includes the hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, periaqueductal gray region, locus coeruleus and other brainstem sites. We performed a systematic search by the electronic database PubMed. Thereby, the main focus was laid on recent neurofunctional, neurostructural, and neurochemical studies (from the period between January 2012 and April 2016). Within this frame, special attention was given to the emerging field of imaging genetics.

Results: We noted that many neuroimaging studies have reinforced the role of the "fear network" regions in the pathophysiology of panic disorder. However, recent functional studies suggest abnormal activation mainly in an extended fear network comprising brainstem, anterior and midcingulate cortex (ACC and MCC), insula, and lateral as well as medial parts of the prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, differences in the amygdala activation were not as consistently reported as one would predict from the hypothesis of Gorman et al (2000). Indeed, amygdala hyperactivation seems to strongly depend on stimuli and experimental paradigms, sample heterogeneity and size, as well as on limitations of neuroimaging techniques. Advanced neurochemical studies have substantiated the major role of serotonergic, noradrenergic and glutamatergic neurotransmission in the pathophysiology of PD. However, alterations of GABAergic function in PD are still a matter of debate and also their specificity remains questionable. A promising new research approach is "imaging genetics". Imaging genetic studies are designed to evaluate the impact of genetic variations (polymorphisms) on cerebral function in regions critical for PD. Most recently, imaging genetic studies have not only confirmed the importance of serotonergic and noradrenergic transmission in the etiology of PD but also indicated the significance of neuropeptide S receptor, CRH receptor, human TransMEMbrane protein (TMEM123D), and amiloride-sensitive cation channel 2 (ACCN2) genes.

Conclusion: In light of these findings it is conceivable that in the near future this research will lead to the development of clinically useful tools like predictive biomarkers or novel treatment options.

Keywords: Amygdala; Anterior cingulate cortex; Diffusion tensor imaging; Functional magnetic resonance imaging; Imaging genetics; Insula; Noradrenaline; Panic disorder; Serotonin; Voxel-based morphometry.