The neurovisceral integration model stipulates that autonomic function plays a critical role in the regulation of higher-order cognitive processes, yet most work to date has examined parasympathetic function in isolation from sympathetic function. Furthermore, the majority of work has been conducted on normative samples, which typically demonstrate parasympathetic withdrawal to increase arousal needed to complete cognitive tasks. Little is known about how autonomic regulation supports cognitive function in populations exposed to high levels of stress, which is critical given that chronic stress exposure alters autonomic function. To address this, we sought to characterize how parasympathetic (high-frequency heart rate variability, HF-HRV) and sympathetic (preejection period, PEP) measures of cardiac function contribute to individual differences in working memory (WM) capacity in a sample of high-risk women. HF-HRV and PEP were measured at rest and during a visual change detection measure of WM. Multilevel modeling was used to examine within-person fluctuations in WM performance throughout the task concurrently with HF-HRV and PEP, as well as between-person differences as a function of resting HF-HRV and PEP levels. Results indicate that resting PEP moderated the association between HF-HRV reactivity and WM capacity. Increases in WM capacity across the task were associated with increases in parasympathetic activity, but only among individuals with longer resting PEP (lower sympathetic arousal). Follow-up analyses showed that shorter resting PEP was associated with greater cumulative risk exposure. These results support the autonomic space framework, in that the relationship between behavior and parasympathetic function appears dependent on resting sympathetic activation.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
- Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
- Developmental Neuroscience
- Cognitive Neuroscience
- Biological Psychiatry