Perception, cognition and emotions are closely tied to autonomic nervous control in specific ways and at various levels of the neuraxis. Studies suggest that cognitive processing, especially executive functions, is impaired in conditions with reduced autonomic regulatory capacity such as cardiovascular disease or hypertension. Studies suggest that even in healthy population, cognitive function is related to parasympathetic function. Psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and depression show cognitive deficits. Weather autonomic dysfunction is associated to cognitive impairment is a matter current research.
Areas of research
Autonomic dysfunction in psychiatric disorders
Several psychiatric disorders are associated with dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system with significant clinical and economic consequences. For instance, depression is closely linked to heart disease. Longitudinal cohort studies show that depression subsequently increases the risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality. In patients with schizophrenia, life expectancy is reduced by 20% compared with the general population. Cardiovascular diseases account to 40-50% for the increased mortality.
Central regulation of autonomic function
The autonomic nervous system is of paramount importance for daily life. Its regulatory action on respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, and many other systems is controlled by a number of structures in the central nervous system. While the majority of these nuclei and cortices have been identified in animal models, neuroimaging studies have recently begun to shed light on central autonomic processing in humans. Using functional magnetic neuroimaging we want to further investigate neural correlates of autonomic function and their role in psychiatric disorders.
Association of autonomic and cognitive function
Aging of the autonomic nervous system
The health care system faces enormous challenges in a senescent society to meet medical needs accompanying the ageing process. Especially the high prevalence of cardiovascular diseases, representing the globally leading cause of death, requires sophisticated strategies to early detect bodily changes adumbrating cardiovascular impairments. One of the interesting features of aging is that it can occur at different rates. It is likely that those individuals that age slowly live longer and have a healthy old age. In contrast, those that age faster do not survive so long and are likely to suffer from age‐related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease or Alzheimer's disease. As risk factors such as chronic stress leads to deterioration of health and ultimately, accelerate the aging process, deviations from normal aging of the autonomic nervous system might serve as independent risk marker for age-related diseases.
Relation of brain function and structure
Aging is characterized by progressive changes in brain function and structure. The brain of healthy elderly people exhibits shrinkage of neurons, reductions of synaptic spines, and lower numbers of synapses, which lead to reductions in grey matter and concurrent reorganizations of functional connectivity in major brain networks. Age-related changes in brain structure and function are associated with clinically relevant cognitive and behavioral impairments in healthy subjects. Using modern MRI techniques, such as DWI and multiband accelerated fMRI, and different methodologies for data analysis, including dynamic functional connectivity, independent component analysis (ICA), graph theory and machine learning, our group studies aging in the healthy brain or patients with psychiatric disorders.
Interventions on autonomic function
Physical exercise has beneficial influence on cardiovascular regulation, social integration and mental health. Patients with psychiatric disorders have specific requirements on the training program, since cardiovascular dysfunction might interfere with training adaptations of the body normally observed. Efficacy of relaxing interventions might be superior to high intensity exercise. Biofeedback interventions target at autonomic regulation and have been shown to have beneficial effect on mental health as well.