Right frontal hemisphere activation, as indicated by reduced frontal alpha amplitude, seems to represent activation of an avoidance-withdrawal system and seems to be associated with negative emotions. Since patients with panic disorder are characterized by both negative emotions and avoidance-withdrawal behavior, we expected them to show greater right than left frontal hemisphere activation.
Spontaneous electroencephalography was recorded from the left and right frontal and parietal scalp regions of 23 patients with panic disorder patients without a diagnosis of depression and from 25 healthy control participants during the following conditions: rest, confrontation with neutral, panic-relevant, anxiety-relevant but panic-irrelevant, or anxiety-irrelevant but emotionally relevant stimuli, and performance of a motor task. Their emotional state during these conditions was assessed by the Self-Assessment Manikin.
In patients with panic disorders, there were asymmetries in frontal hemisphere activation during resting phases and when confronted with anxiety-relevant stimuli. Their right frontal alpha power was significantly decreased compared with the left, while control participants did not show frontal brain asymmetry during these phases. There was no frontal brain asymmetry when patients observed an emotionally neutral picture or performed a motor task. Under these conditions, left and right frontal hemisphere alpha activation of patients with panic disorder and healthy participants were comparable.
These data support the hypothesis that patients with panic disorder are characterized by greater activation of a right frontal avoidance-withdrawal system in negatively valenced situations. The findings are interpreted as biological evidence for a disturbed cortical processing in patients with panic disorder.