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Poster Presentation - Vagal Functioning and Cognitive Performance

  • Alliant International University, San Diego, United States
Mark J Stern, MA, BCB, Leighton A Grampp, Carolyn J Huntley, MA, BCB, Jonathan Marquez, MA, Kevin Keeran, MA, Tammy Wildgoose, BS,
William P Curci, BA, Joscelyn Rompogren, Scott C. Wollman, Matthew G. Hall, Omar Alhassoon, PhD, Richard Gevirtz, PhD
Findings indicate that an individual’s ability to appropriately
respond to cognitive demands may be better assessed by
dynamic vagal reactivity.
This may reflect an individual’s need to increase central
nervous system arousal, reflected by vagal withdrawal, for
cognitive activity as well as the ability to mitigate the
arousal response, reflected by vagal recovery. Vagal
recovery itself may indicate an individual’s ability to re-
inhibit sympathoexcitatory circuits.
Task difficulty and complexity appear to play a significant
role in this relationship. Easier tasks, such as the 3 second
condition of the PASAT, may not require the same dynamic
vagal arousal modulation to utilize necessary cognitive
These findings support and extend the Neurovisceral
Integration Model by specifying the vagal characteristics
most related to cognitive performance related to
information processing and working memory.
Generalizability of these findings is limited by the small
sample size and that only females have been eligible for
participation thus far.
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variability, prefrontal neural function, and cognitive performance: the
neurovisceral integration perspective on self-regulation, adaptation, and
health. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37(2), 141-53. doi: 10.1007/s12160-
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Relationship Between Cognitive Performance
and Vagal Functioning
The Neurovisceral Integration Model proposes that the
reciprocity between the autonomic and central nervous
systems facilitates an individual’s ability to respond
appropriately to environmental demands1.
Neuroimaging studies show the prefrontal cortex to be
significantly associated with heart rate variability (HRV)
via the vagus nerve2, 3.
Correspondingly, HRV has been shown to be associated
with performance on tasks involving executive functions,
such as attention, working memory and inhibition4-6.
Evidence also suggests that in addition to resting HRV,
dynamic changes in vagal activity may be associated with
cognitive performance, as shown in patients with Panic
The current study examines the relationship between
cognitive performance and resting vagal tone as well as
vagal withdrawal and recovery.
The purpose of this study is to demonstrate that dynamic
changes in vagal activity accounts for more variance in
cognitive performance in information processing than resting
vagal tone.
Participants were recruited from the community via free
online advertisements and local flyers.
Data was collected on 15 healthy females (mean age =
37.2, SD = 15.29). Mean education level was 15.2 years
(SD = 2.597) with a range of 12-20 years.
Participants were screened for eligibility:
Inclusion criteria:
≥ 18 years old.
Proficient in reading and writing in English
Exclusion criteria:
Self-reported indications of psychopathology.
History of cardiovascular or neurological
Major hearing or visual impairments
Evidence of Cognitive Impairment
The Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test (PASAT) was
used to assess auditory information processing and
working memory8: Age and education corrected
Z-Scores were calculated based on normative data9.
Physiological data for the PSP were recorded with J&J
Engineering C2+ I330 physiological monitoring hardware
and software.
Data were analyzed with Kubios HRV software.
Vagal tone was measured by the natural log of High
Frequency (LnHF). Vagal withdrawal was measured by
the difference between LnHF at rest and during stress.
Vagal Recovery was measured as the difference between
LnHF during recovery period and during stress.
Cardiac inter-beat-intervals were collected:
During 10 minutes baseline
During a 4 minute cognitive stressor (Serial 7’s,
while being pressed for time by the examiner)
Followed by a 5 minute of recovery period.
Following Psychophysiological assessment, the PASAT
was administered to each participant, presenting a
series of single digits via an audio recording at the rate
of one every three seconds (condition 1) and one every
two seconds (condition 2) while the examinee was asked
to add each number to the preceding number heard on
the recording.
PASAT performance on both condition 1 and condition
2 was not significantly correlated with resting Vagal
PASAT 3” was not significantly correlated with any
measure of Vagal activity.
PASAT 2” was significantly correlated with both Vagal
Withdrawal and Recovery, but not resting Vagal Tone
See Table 1 for correlation matrix
Table 1
Vagal activity and PASAT performance correlation matrix
r p r p
Vagal Tone
-.06 .832 .277 .318
Vagal Withdrawal
.492 .074 .739**
Vagal Recovery
.473 .088 .54* .046
Note.*Significance < .05 level;
**Significance < .01 level
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Full-text available
Working from a model of neurovisceral integration, we examined whether adding response contingencies and motivational involvement would increase the need for cardiac autonomic regulation in maintaining effective cognitive control. Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA) was recorded during variants of the Stroop color-word task. The Basic task involved "accepting" congruent items and "rejecting" words printed in incongruent colors (BLUE in red font); an added contingency involved rejecting a particular congruent word (e.g., RED in red font), or a congruent word repeated on an immediately subsequent trial. Motivation was increased by adding a financial incentive phase. Results indicate that pre-task RSA predicted accuracy best when response contingencies required the maintenance of a specific item in memory or on the Basic Stroop task when errors resulted in financial loss. Overall, RSA appeared to be most relevant to performance when the task encouraged a more proactive style of cognitive control, a control strategy thought to be more metabolically costly, and hence, more reliant on flexible cardiac autonomic regulation.
Full-text available
We examined whether cardiac vagal tone (indexed by heart rate variability, HRV) was associated with the functioning of selective attention under load. Participants were instructed to detect a target letter among letter strings superimposed on either fearful or neutral distractor faces. Under low load, when letter strings consisted of six target letters, there was no difference between people with high and low HRV on task performance. Under high load, when letter strings consisted of one target letter and five nontarget letters, people with high HRV were faster in trials with neutral distractors, but not with fearful distractors. However, people with low HRV were slower in trials with both fearful and neutral distractors. The current research suggests cardiac vagal tone is associated with successful control of selective attention critical for goal-directed behavior, and its impact is greater when fewer cognitive resources are available.
Full-text available
Cognitive difficulties and autonomic dysfunction have been reported separately in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). A role for heart rate variability (HRV) in cognitive flexibility has been demonstrated in healthy individuals, but this relationship has not as yet been examined in CFS. The objective of this study was to examine the relationship between HRV and cognitive performance in patients with CFS. Participants were 30 patients with CFS and 40 healthy controls; the groups were matched for age, sex, education, body mass index, and hours of moderate exercise/week. Questionnaires were used to obtain relevant medical and demographic information, and assess current symptoms and functional impairment. Electrocardiograms, perceived fatigue/effort and performance data were recorded during cognitive tasks. Between-group differences in autonomic reactivity and associations with cognitive performance were analysed. Patients with CFS showed no deficits in performance accuracy, but were significantly slower than healthy controls. CFS was further characterized by low and unresponsive HRV; greater heart rate (HR) reactivity and prolonged HR-recovery after cognitive challenge. Fatigue levels, perceived effort and distress did not affect cognitive performance. HRV was consistently associated with performance indices and significantly predicted variance in cognitive outcomes. These findings reveal for the first time an association between reduced cardiac vagal tone and cognitive impairment in CFS and confirm previous reports of diminished vagal activity.
In the present paper, we describe a model of neurovisceral integration in which a set of neural structures involved in cognitive, affective, and autonomic regulation are related to heart rate variability (HRV) and cognitive performance. We detail the pathways involved in the neural regulation of the cardiovascular system and provide pharmacological and neuroimaging data in support of the neural structures linking the central nervous system to HRV in humans. We review a number of studies from our group showing that individual differences in HRV are related to performance on tasks associated with executive function and prefrontal cortical activity. These studies include comparisons of executive- and nonexecutive-function tasks in healthy participants, in both threatening and nonthreatening conditions. In addition, we show that manipulating resting HRV levels is associated with changes in performance on executive-function tasks. We also examine the relationship between HRV and cognitive performance in ecologically valid situations using a police shooting simulation and a naval navigation simulation. Finally, we review our studies in anxiety patients, as well as studies examining psychopathy. These findings in total suggest an important relationship among cognitive performance, HRV, and prefrontal neural function that has important implications for both physical and mental health. Future studies are needed to determine exactly which executive functions are associated with individual differences in HRV in a wider range of situations and populations.
Previous frequency estimates of cognitive dysfunction in multiple sclerosis have ranged from 54 to 65 percent. These studies may overestimate the frequency in the general MS population, since the patients in these studies were recruited from clinic populations. In the present study, we administered a comprehensive neuropsychological test battery to 100 community-based MS patients and 100 demographically matched healthy controls. Of 31 cognitive test indices examined, 48 MS patients and five controls were impaired on four or more test indices, yielding an overall frequency rate of 43% for the MS group. The pattern of cognitive decline was not uniform: MS patients were more frequently impaired on measures of recent memory, sustained attention, verbal fluency, conceptual reasoning, and visuospatial perception, and less frequently impaired on measures of language and immediate and remote memory. We developed a brief (20-minute) screening battery empirically by selecting the four most sensitive test indices from the comprehensive battery. The brief battery yielded a sensitivity value of 71% and a specificity value of 94% in discriminating cognitively intact from impaired MS patients, as defined by the comprehensive battery. Cognitive impairment was not significantly associated with illness duration, depression, disease course, or medication usage, but was significantly (albeit weakly) correlated with physical disability.
In the present paper we present the outlines of a model that integrates autonomic, attentional, and affective systems into a functional and structural network that may help to guide us in our understanding of emotion regulation and dysregulation. We will emphasize the relationship between attentional regulation and affective processes and propose a group of underlying physiological systems that serve to integrate these functions in the service of self-regulation and adaptability of the organism. We will attempt to place this network in the context of dynamical systems models which involve feedback and feedforward circuits with special attention to negative feedback mechanisms, inhibitory processes, and their role in response selection. From a systems perspective, inhibitory processes can be viewed as negative feedback circuits that allow for the interruption of ongoing behavior and the re-deployment of resources to other tasks. When these negative feedback mechanisms are compromised, positive feedback loops may develop as a result (of dis-inhibition). From this perspective, the relative sympathetic activation seen in anxiety disorders may represent dis-inhibition due to faulty inhibitory mechanisms.
The aim of the present study was to investigate the effect of vagal tone on performance during executive and non-executive tasks, using a working memory and a sustained attention test. Reactivity to cognitive tasks was also investigated using heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV). Fifty-three male sailors from the Royal Norwegian Navy participated in this study. Inter-beat-intervals were recorded continuously for 5 min of baseline, followed by randomized presentation of a working memory test (WMT) based on Baddeley and Hitch's research (1974) and a continuous performance test (CPT). The session ended with a 5-min recovery period. High HRV and low HRV groups were formed based on a median split of the root mean squared successive differences during baseline. The results showed that the high HRV group showed more correct responses than the low HRV group on the WMT. Furthermore, the high HRV group showed faster mean reaction time (mRT), more correct responses and less error, than the low HRV group on the CPT. Follow-up analysis revealed that this was evident only for components of the CPT where executive functions were involved. The analyses of reactivity showed a suppression of HRV and an increase in HR during presentation of cognitive tasks compared to recovery. This was evident for both groups. The present results indicated that high HRV was associated with better performance on tasks involving executive function.
Heart rate variability, prefrontal neural function, and cognitive performance: the neurovisceral integration perspective on self-regulation, adaptation, and health
  • J F Thayer
  • A L Hansen
  • E Saus-Rose
  • B H Johnsen
Thayer, J.F., Hansen, A.L., Saus-Rose, E., & Johnsen, B.H. (2009). Heart rate variability, prefrontal neural function, and cognitive performance: the neurovisceral integration perspective on self-regulation, adaptation, and health. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37(2), 141-53. doi: 10.1007/s12160009-9101-z