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PLoS One. 2017 Apr 4;12(4):e0174974. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0174974. eCollection 2017.

The association between autonomic dysfunction, inflammation and atherosclerosis in men under investigation for carotid plaques.

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Department of Physiology, Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology, The Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden.
Department of Molecular and Clinical Medicine, Wallenberg Laboratory for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Research, University of Gothenburg, Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden.
Department of Mathematical Statistics, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden.



Autonomic dysfunction is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD), however, the exact mechanism linking autonomic dysfunction to cardiovascular disease is not known. In this study we hypothesized that autonomic dysfunction increases inflammation, which subsequently accelerates atherosclerosis. The aim of the current study was to investigate the association between autonomic tone, inflammation and atherosclerosis.


124 men under investigation for carotid atherosclerosis were examined for autonomic function (heart rate variability; HRV and baroreflex sensitivity; BRS), inflammatory markers (white blood cell count; WBCC and C-reactive protein; CRP) and degree of carotid atherosclerosis. The direct or indirect associations between autonomic function, inflammatory parameters and carotid plaque area were investigated with multiple linear regressions.


Male subjects with prevalent CVD showed larger carotid plaque area, higher WBCC, and reduced BRS compared to subjects with no history of CVD. Further, BRS was inversely associated with carotid plaque area (r = -0.21, p = 0.018) as well as inflammatory parameters WBCC and CRP (r = -0.29, p = 0.001, and r = -0.23, p = 0.009, respectively), whereas HRV only was inversely associated with WBCC (r = -0.22, p = 0.014). To investigate if inflammation could provide a link between autonomic function and carotid atherosclerosis we adjusted the associations accordingly. After adjusting for WBCC and CRP the inverse association between BRS and carotid plaque area was attenuated and did not remain significant, while both WBCC and CRP remained significantly associated with carotid plaque area, indicating that low-grade inflammation can possibly link BRS to atherosclerosis. Also, after adjusting for age, antihypertensive treatment and cardiovascular risk factors, BRS was independently inversely associated with both WBCC and CRP, and HRV independently inversely associated with WBCC. WBCC was the only inflammatory marker independently associated with carotid plaque area after adjustment.


We demonstrate that autonomic dysfunction is associated with atherosclerosis and that inflammation could play an important role in mediating this relationship.

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