Background: The sympathetic nervous system has long been believed to be involved in the pathogenesis of panic disorder, but studies to date, most using peripheral venous catecholamine measurements, have yielded conflicting and equivocal results. We tested sympathetic nervous function in patients with panic disorder by using more sensitive methods.
Methods: Sympathetic nervous and adrenal medullary function was measured by using direct nerve recording (clinical microneurography) and whole-body and cardiac catecholamine kinetics in 13 patients with panic disorder as defined by the DSM-IV, and 14 healthy control subjects. Measurements were made at rest, during laboratory stress (forced mental arithmetic), and, for 4 patients, during panic attacks occurring spontaneously in the laboratory setting.
Results: Muscle sympathetic activity, arterial plasma concentration of norepinephrine, and the total and cardiac norepinephrine spillover rates to plasma were similar in patients and control subjects at rest, as was whole-body epinephrine secretion. Epinephrine spillover from the heart was elevated in patients with panic disorder (P=.01). Responses to laboratory mental stress were almost identical in patient and control groups. During panic attacks, there were marked increases in epinephrine secretion and large increases in the sympathetic activity in muscle in 2 patients but smaller changes in the total norepinephrine spillover to plasma.
Conclusions: Whole-body and regional sympathetic nervous activity are not elevated at rest in patients with panic disorder. Epinephrine is released from the heart at rest in patients with panic disorder, possibly due to loading of cardiac neuronal stores by uptake from plasma during surges of epinephrine secretion in panic attacks. Contrary to popular belief, the sympathetic nervous system is not globally activated during panic attacks.