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Better understanding of breathlessness perception addresses an unmet clinical need for more effective treatments for intractable dyspnoea, a prevalent symptom of multiple medical conditions. The insular-cortex is predominantly activated in brain-imaging studies of dyspnoea, but its precise role remains unclear. We measured experimentally-induced hypercapnic air-hunger in three insular-glioma patients before and after surgical resection. Tests involved one-minute increments in inspired CO2, raising end-tidal PCO2 to 7.5 mmHg above baseline (38.5 ± 5.7 mmHg), whilst ventilation was constrained (10.7 ± 2.3 L/min). Patients rated air-hunger on a visual analogue scale (VAS). Patients had lower stimulus-response (2.8 ± 2 vs. 11 ± 4 %VAS/mmHg; p = 0.004), but similar threshold (40.5 ± 3.9 vs. 43.2 ± 5.1 mmHg), compared to healthy individuals. Volunteered comments implicated diminished affective valence. After surgical resection; sensitivity increased in one patient, decreased in another, and other was unable to tolerate the ventilatory limit before any increase in inspired CO2.We suggest that functional insular-cortex is essential to register breathlessness unpleasantness and could be targeted with neuromodulation in chronically-breathless patients. Neurological patients with insula involvement should be monitored for blunted breathlessness to inform clinical management.

Original publication




Journal article


Front neurosci

Publication Date





air hunger, brain tumour, dyspnoea, hypercapnia, insular cortex, neurosurgery, short of breath