Association between Attention and Heart Rate Fluctuations in Pathological Worriers

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    Simone Gazzellini, Maria Dettori, Francesca Amadori, Barbara Paoli, Antonio Napolitano, Francesco Mancini, Cristina Ottaviani (2016): Association between Attention and Heart Rate Fluctuations in Pathological Worriers. In: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10 , pp. 648, 2016, ISSN: 1662-5161.


    Recent data suggests that several psychopathological conditions are associated with alterations in the variability of behavioral and physiological responses. Pathological worry, defined as the cognitive representation of a potential threat, has been associated with reduced variability of heart beat oscillations (i.e., decreased heart rate variability; HRV) and lapses of attention indexed by reaction times (RTs). Clinical populations with attention deficit show RTs oscillation around 0.05 and 0.01 Hz when performing a sustained attention task. We tested the hypothesis that people who are prone to worry do it in a predictable oscillating pattern revealed through recurrent lapses in attention and concomitant oscillating HRV. Sixty healthy young adults (50% women) were recruited: 30 exceeded the clinical cut-off on the Penn State Worry Questionnaire (High-Worry); the remaining 30 constituted the Low-Worry group. After a diagnostic assessment, participants performed two 15-minute sustained attention tasks, interspersed by a standardized worry-induction procedure. RTs, HRV, and moods were assessed. The analyses of the frequency spectrum showed that the High-Worry group presents a significant higher and constant peak of RTs oscillation around 0.01 Hz (period 100 s) after the induction of worry, in comparison with their baseline and with the Low-Worry group that was not responsive to the induction procedure. Physiologically, the induction significantly reduced high-frequency HRV and such reduction was associated with levels of self-reported worry. Results are coherent with the oscillatory nature of the default mode network and further confirm an association between cognitive rigidity and autonomic nervous system inflexibility.