Brain Imaging in COPD: Similar Areas for Shortness of Breath and Fear

Affected Brain Areas Process Shortness of Breath and Fear

In the July 2015 issue of the journal CHEST, Dr. Esser and co-authors performed brain imaging using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in 30 patients with moderate to severe COPD and 30 healthy individuals matched for age and gender. The study was performed at the University Medical Center in Hamburg-Eppendorf, Germany.

The aim of the study was to examine changes in brain matter in those with COPD and any possible connection with the duration of COPD, fear of breathing difficulty, and physical activity.


Those with COPD had higher ratings of fear and of breathing difficulty than healthy individuals on a questionnaire. In general, the amount (volume) of gray matter in the brain was decreased in certain areas compared with the healthy controls. These brain areas are involved in the experiences of feeling short of breath and having fear.

My Comment

The brain consists of gray and white matter. Gray matter includes nerve cells (called neuronal cell bodies, dendrites, and glial cells). White matter includes mainly nerve fibers (axons). White matter connects various areas of gray matter just like a highway connects different cities.

Slice thru the brain.

Slice thru the brain.

The gray matter in the brain performs many functions including muscle control, seeing, hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control.

In elderly persons, there is a correlation between the amount (volume) of gray matter in the brain and short-term memory.  The less the gray matter, the worse is short-term memory. Older smokers lose gray matter and cognitive function (ability to think) at a greater rate than those who do not smoke. In one study, chronic cigarette smokers who quit smoking lost fewer brain cells and had better brain function than those who continued to smoke. Research suggests that regular exercise may lead to increased gray matter inside part of the brain called the hippocampus.

Thus, there are many reasons not to smoke. One important reason is to preserve gray matter in our brain.

Other approaches to quit smoking are found on the website of the American Heart Association -