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Neth Heart J. 2013 Feb;21(2):64-9. doi: 10.1007/s12471-012-0351-1.

Central nervous system involvement in the autonomic responses to psychological distress.

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Department of Medical Psychology and Neuropsychology, Center of Research on Psychology in Somatic diseases (CoRPS), Tilburg University, Warandelaan 2, PO Box 90153, 5000 LE, Tilburg, the Netherlands,


Psychological distress can trigger acute coronary syndromes and sudden cardiac death in vulnerable patients. The primary pathophysiological mechanism that plays a role in stress-induced cardiac events involves the autonomic nervous system, particularly disproportional sympathetic activation and parasympathetic withdrawal. This article describes the relation between psychological distress and autonomic nervous system function, with a focus on subsequent adverse cardiovascular outcomes. The role of the central nervous system in these associations is addressed, and a systematic review is presented of studies examining the association between stress-induced central nervous system responses measured by neuroimaging techniques and autonomic nervous system activation. Results of the systematic review indicate that the primary brain areas involved in the autonomic component of the brain-heart association are the insula, medial prefrontal cortex, and cerebellum (based on 121 participants across three studies that fitted the inclusion criteria). Other areas involved in stress-induced autonomic modulation are the (anterior) cingulate cortex, parietal cortex, somatomotor cortex/precentral gyrus, and temporal cortex. The interaction between central and autonomic nervous system responses may have implications for further investigations of the brain-heart associations and mechanisms by which acute and chronic psychological distress increase the risk of myocardial infarction, cardiac arrhythmias, and sudden cardiac death.

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