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W. Bryan Wilent, Michael Y. Oh, Cathrin M. Buetefisch, Julian E. Bailes, Diane Cantella, Cindy Angle, and Donald M. Whiting

Panic attacks are sudden debilitating attacks of intense distress often accompanied by physical symptoms such as shortness of breath and heart palpitations. Numerous brain regions, hormones, and neurotransmitter systems are putatively involved, but the etiology and neurocircuitry of panic attacks is far from established. One particular brain region of interest is the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH). In cats and rats, electrical stimulation delivered to the VMH has been shown to evoke an emotional “panic attack–like” escape behavior, and in humans, stimulation targeting nuclei just posterior or anterior to the VMH has reportedly induced panic attacks. The authors report findings obtained in an awake patient undergoing bilateral implantation of deep brain stimulation electrodes into the hypothalamus that strongly implicates the VMH as being critically involved in the genesis of panic attacks. First, as the stimulating electrode progressed deeper into the VMH, the intensity of stimulation required to evoke an attack systematically decreased; second, while stimulation of the VMH in either hemisphere evoked panic, stimulation that appeared to be in the center of the VMH was more potent. Thus, this evidence supports the role of the VMH in the induction of panic attacks purported by animal studies.