Cerebral correlates of autonomic cardiovascular arousal: A functional neuroimaging investigation in humans

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Critchley HD, Corfield DR, Chandler MP, Mathias CJ, and Dolan RJ (2000) Cerebral correlates of autonomic cardiovascular arousal: A functional neuroimaging investigation in humans. J Physiol 523 Pt 1: 259–70.

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Abstract: 1. States of peripheral autonomic arousal accompany emotional behaviour, physical exercise and cognitive effort, and their central representation may influence decision making and the regulation of social and emotional behaviours. However, the cerebral functional neuroanatomy representing and mediating peripheral autonomic responses in humans is poorly understood. 2. Six healthy volunteer subjects underwent H215O positron emission tomography (PET) scanning while performing isometric exercise and mental arithmetic stressor tasks, and during corresponding control tasks. Mean arterial blood pressure (MAP) and heart rate (HR) were monitored during scanning. 3. Data were analysed using statistical parametric mapping (SPM99). Conjunction analyses were used to determine significant changes in regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) during states of cardiovascular arousal common to both exercise and mental stressor tasks. 4. Exercise and mental stressor tasks, relative to their control tasks, were associated with significantly (P < 0.001) increased MAP and HR. Significant common activations (increased rCBF) were observed in cerebellar vermis, brainstem and right anterior cingulate. In both exercise and mental stress tasks, increased rCBF in cerebellar vermis, right anterior cingulate and right insula covaried with MAP; rCBF in pons, cerebellum and right insula covaried with HR. Cardiovascular arousal in both categorical and covariance analyses was associated with decreased rCBF in prefrontal and medial temporal regions. 5. Neural responses in discrete brain regions accompany peripheral cardiovascular arousal. We provide evidence for the involvement of areas previously implicated in cognitive and emotional behaviours in the representation of peripheral autonomic states, consistent with a functional organization that produces integrated cardiovascular response patterns in the service of volitional and emotional behaviours.


  • PET study in 6 healthy volunteers to monitor changes in cerebral blood flow during periods of elevated heart rate and mean arterial pressure. Blood flow correlated with mean arterial pressure in the cerebellar vermus, right anterior cingulate, and right insula. Blood flow covaried with heart rate in pons, cerebellum and right insula. The authors interpret the increases in regional blood flow as indicative of increased activity in these regions that makes internal state available for cognitive processing. The same effect would also be expected if these regions have vascular supply that causes them to ‘passively’ undergo increased blood flow when systemic blood pressure increases. The potential influence of these regions on MAP and HR must also be considered. Using a similar method, Corfield et al. found activation of different regions during hypercapnea.