October 21, 2014 | Rick Nauert, PhD
Although the finding does not imply a cause-and-effect relationship, the discovery of an association may lead to development of new therapies for panic disorder.
Panic attacks occur when a person’s fear response is out of proportion for an often non-threatening situation. Panic disorder is different from normal fear and anxiety reactions to stressful events in our lives.
Panic disorder is a serious condition that affects 2.4 million Americans. Previous studies have shown that tit has a strong seasonal component.
The new European study is the first to look specifically at panic disorder patients’ reactions to light.
A group of researchers from the University of Siena (Italy) compared 24 patients with panic disorder (PD) against 33 healthy controls.
Using a standard Photosensitivity Assessment Questionnaire (PAQ), they found that healthy controls showed a slight (not statistically significant) tendency to be photophilic — that is, to be attracted to bright light.
In contrast, the patients with panic disorder showed medium to high levels of aversion to bright light.
The Photosensitivity Assessment Questionnaire asks subjects to agree or disagree with a series of questions about their attitude towards light, for example “My ideal house has large windows” or “Sunlight is so annoying to me, that I have to wear sunglasses when I go out.”
The mean values in the Photosensitivity Assessment Questionnaire were as follows: patients with photophobia scored 0.34 (± 0.32 SD), healthy subjects scored 0,11 (± 0,13 SD).
According to lead researcher Dr. Giulia Campinoti, ”There have been several hints that photophobia is associated with panic disorder; for example in some people, fluorescent light can induce panic attacks. It had also been noted that people with panic disorder often protect themselves from light, for example by wearing sunglasses.”
Researchers admit the study was small and needs replication by a larger studies before the relationship between an abnormal fear of light (photophobia) and panic disorders can be confirmed.
However, if photosensitivity and panic attacks are related, then steps can be developed to avoid some of the triggers to panic attacks.
“It is important to note that our work shows an association, not necessarily a cause and effect. We don’t yet know exactly what the relationship might be, but there is probably some underlying biochemical basis,” said Campinoti.