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BackgroundCurrent models of breathlessness often fail to explain disparities between patients' experiences of breathlessness and objective measures of lung function. While a mechanistic understanding of this discordance has thus far remained elusive, factors such as mood, attention and expectation have all been implicated as important modulators of breathlessness. Therefore, we have developed a model to better understand the relationships between these factors using unsupervised machine learning techniques. Subsequently we examined how expectation-related brain activity differed between these symptom-defined clusters of participants.MethodsA cohort of 91 participants with mild-to-moderate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) underwent functional brain imaging, self-report questionnaires and clinical measures of respiratory function. Unsupervised machine learning techniques of exploratory factor analysis and hierarchical cluster modelling were used to model brain–behaviour–breathlessness links.ResultsWe successfully stratified participants across four key factors corresponding to mood, symptom burden and two capability measures. Two key groups resulted from this stratification, corresponding to high and low symptom burden. Compared with the high symptom burden group, the low symptom burden group demonstrated significantly greater brain activity within the anterior insula, a key region thought to be involved in monitoring internal bodily sensations (interoception).ConclusionsThis is the largest functional neuroimaging study of COPD to date, and is the first to provide a clear model linking brain, behaviour and breathlessness expectation. Furthermore, it was possible to stratify participants into groups, which then revealed differences in brain activity patterns. Together, these findings highlight the value of multimodal models of breathlessness in identifying behavioural phenotypes and for advancing understanding of differences in breathlessness burden.

Original publication




Journal article


European Respiratory Journal


European Respiratory Society (ERS)

Publication Date





2004099 - 2004099