Salk Researchers Discover a ‘Panic Circuit’ in the Brain

Anyone who suffers from regular panic attacks knows that these are no picnic. But what if we could shut them off, similar to turning off a light switch? It might actually be possible if research from the Salk Institute proves fruitful. Salk researchers say they have discovered a ‘panic circuit’ in the brain.

Like a physical circuit that carries electricity from one point to the next, the brain circuit in question appears to be a pathway for panic messages making their way to the brain. Those messages are transmitted through small proteins known as neuropeptides. One particular neuropeptide is of interest to the researchers: PACAP.

What makes the neuropeptide so important? Both the neuropeptide and the neurons that produce it can be influenced with medications. Researchers suggest that new medications could be helpful for patients with panic disorders, patients who have tried non-pharmacological interventions without success.

More About Panic Disorders

A panic disorder is a mental health condition that manifests itself in frequent and unexpected panic attacks. A person with a panic disorder experiences regular episodes of significant fear or anxiety. The episodes can come on suddenly and without warning. They can also escalate rather quickly.

A panic attack can leave a person feeling out of control. A person in the midst of an attack can feel detached from the situation to the extent that he also feels like he’s going crazy. Some people say that their panic attacks leave them feeling like they are dying.

Panic disorders can also manifest physical symptoms, including:

  • Palpitations, a racing heart.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Pain or tightness in the chest.
  • Hot flashes, sweating, or chills.
  • Lightheadedness and dizziness.
  • General shaking or specified tremors.
  • Abdominal distress, including nausea.

A panic attack can be a truly frightening experience. People who suffer from panic disorders can be thrown off by every new attack that comes their way. As clinicians, we sometimes need to rely on every strategy we know of to help patients overcome panic disorders.

More About the Research

With all of that said, we are excited to learn about the Salk research. Their latest findings were published by Nature Neuroscience in early January 2024. If what they have discovered proves to be correct, it could change the way we treat panic disorders that don’t respond to conventional psychotherapies.

Science has long thought that the amygdala – a.k.a, the brain’s fear center – was primarily responsible for producing panic attacks. But research to that end has proved otherwise. Salk researchers went in a different direction. They looked at a part of the brain known as the lateral parabrachial nucleus – a.k.a., the brain’s alarm center.

They discovered a brain circuit in this particular region that they believed could be carrying panic messages. They also discovered that this particular area of the brain produces PACAP. It turns out that PACAP heavily regulates human stress response.

To make a long story short, the researchers discovered a link between PACAP and panic attacks. They mimicked panic attacks in mice and watched as the targeted brain circuit came alive with activity.

A Hope for Better Treatments

Most patients suffering with panic disorders can be helped with traditional therapies. However, some cannot. Here’s hoping the Salk researchers’ discovery will lead to better treatments for these patients. They need and deserve relief.

In the meantime, we encourage you to contact Aspire Psychological if you struggle with routine panic attacks. Panic disorders are among the many mental health conditions we treat. We have two offices in New Jersey and one in New York for your convenience.

Dr. Aryeh Berlin is a New Jersey licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Aspire Psychological Group. Dr. Berlin has vast clinical training experiences including a residential adolescent addiction treatment center in Israel, community mental health centers, and youth detention centers. Dr. Berlin has lectured on parenting children with emotional and behavioral difficulties, child development, helping children with school-related challenges and trauma. Audiences included attorneys, mental health professionals, parents, and educators.

Salk Researchers Discover a ‘Panic Circuit’ in the Brain