Persistent respiratory irregularity in patients with panic disorder

James L. Abelson, John G. Weg, Randolph M. Nesse, George C. Curtis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

136 Scopus citations


Background: Dysregulated respiratory control may play a role in the pathophysiology of panic disorder. This could be due to abnormalities in brain stem respiratory nuclei or to dysregulation at higher brain levels. Results from previous studies using the doxapram model of panic have yielded an unclear picture. A brief cognitive manipulation reduced doxapram-induced hyperventilation in patients, suggesting that higher level inputs can substantially alter their respiratory patterns. However, respiratory abnormalities persisted, including a striking irregularity in breathing patterns. Methods: To directly study respiratory irregularity, breath-by-breath records of tidal volume (Vt) and frequency (f) from previously studied subjects were obtained. Irregularity was quantified using von Neumann's statistic and calculation of "sigh" frequency in 16 patients and 16 matched control subjects. Half of each group received a standard introduction to the study and half received a cognitive intervention designed to reduce anxiety/distress responses to the doxapram injection. Results: Patients had significantly greater Vt irregularity relative to control subjects. Neither the cognitive intervention nor doxapram-induced hyperventilation produced significant changes in Vt irregularity. The Vt irregularity was attributable to a sighing pattern of breathing that was characteristic of panic patients but not control subjects. Patients also had somewhat elevated f irregularity relative to control subjects. Conclusions: The irregular breathing patterns in panic patients appear to be intrinsic and stable, uninfluenced by induced hyperventilation or cognitive manipulation. Further study of Vt irregularity and sighs are warranted in efforts to localize dysregulated neural circuits in panic to brain stem or midbrain levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)588-595
Number of pages8
JournalBiological Psychiatry
Issue number7
StatePublished - Apr 1 2001


  • Doxapram
  • Panic disorder
  • Respiratory irregularity
  • Sighs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biological Psychiatry


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