A considerable body of preclinical and clinical evidence suggests that dysregulated activity of noradrenergic systems in the brain is involved in the development of mood disturbance, anxiety, and fear. Neuroanatomical and neurophysiological studies of the noradrenergic system provide a basis for relating increased activity of this system to the behavioral expression of fear and anxiety and the somatic symptoms and cardiovascular changes that accompany severe anxiety states. Previously, extensive research has been done on the role of noradrenergic mechanisms in panic disorder (PD), and it has been suggested that in at least a subgroup of PD patients an abnormality of noradrenergic mechanisms may exist. Studies in patients with PD using the alpha2-adrenoreceptor (AR) antagonist yohimbine showed that a subgroup of PD patients exhibit abnormalities in the regulation of noradrenergic function. Yohimbine, which activates noradrenergic neurons, has been shown to produce greater increases in anxiety, somatic symptoms, blood pressure and plasma levels of the noradrenergic metabolite MHPG in some patients with PD relative to healthy controls. The effect of yohimbine on brain regions hypothesized to be involved in the pathogenesis of PD has not been determined in PD patients using modern neuroimaging techniques. The anxiogenic effects of yohimbine do not occur in all PD patients, although the neurobiological basis for this differential response to yohimbine has not been identified.
This research project proposes to address these two unresolved questions. The effects of yohimbine on regional cerebral glucose metabolism will be determined in PD patients and healthy controls. In addition, preliminary data will be obtained as to whether the behavioral and cerebral metabolic responses to yohimbine relate to functional polymorphisms of the COMT gene which affect catecholamine metabolism.
It is predicted that yohimbine will produce decreases in cerebral metabolism in the prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate. Healthy controls will exhibit an inverse direction of change in these brain regions. These findings would be similar to those we have previously observed in PTSD patients and may reflect an altered dose-response effect of yohimbine in PD and PTSD relative to controls since preclinical pharmacological studies of stress have shown that high levels of norepinephrine release in the brain decrease brain metabolism whereas lower levels increase brain metabolism. In terms of polymorphisms of the COMT and other catecholamine systems-related gene polymorphisms, it is predicted that the low-activity COMT (met allele) alleles will be associated with greater behavioral and cerebral metabolic responses to yohimbine.