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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2005 Nov;30(10):1050-8.

Psychosomatics and psychopathology: looking up and down from the brain.

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NIA/GRC/LPC, 5600 Nathan Shock Drive, Baltimore, MD 21224, USA.


The autonomic nervous system (ANS) plays a role in a wide range of somatic and mental diseases. Using a model of neurovisceral integration, this article describes how autonomic imbalance and decreased parasympathetic tone in particular may be the final common pathway linking negative affective states and conditions to ill health. The central nervous system (CNS) network that regulates autonomic balance (central autonomic network, CAN) is closely related and partially overlaps with networks serving executive, social, affective, attentional, and motivated behavior (anterior executive region, AER; and Damasio's [Damasio, A.R., 1998. Emotion in the perspective of an integrated nervous system. Brain Res. Rev. 26, 83-86.] 'emotion circuit'). A common reciprocal inhibitory cortico-subcortical neural circuit serves to regulate defensive behavior, including autonomic, emotional and cognitive features. This inhibitory cortico-subcortical circuit may structurally, as well as functionally, link psychological processes with health-related physiology. When the prefrontal cortex is taken 'offline' for whatever reason, parasympathetic inhibitory action is withdrawn and a relative sympathetic dominance associated with disinhibited defensive circuits is released, which can be pathogenic when sustained for long periods. This state is indicated by low heart rate variability (HRV), which is a marker for low parasympathetic activation and prefrontal hypoactivity. Consistent with this, HRV is associated with a range of psychological and somatic pathological conditions, including immune dysfunction. Finally, we discuss supportive evidence from recent studies of the reflexive startle blink, attention and working memory, which shows that low HRV predicts hypervigilance and inefficient allocation of attentional and cognitive resources.

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