Heart rate variability and your brain: an update


Yesterday, I updated my previous pieces on how heart rate variability (HRV) can give you a good measurement of your overall body health. Today, I will update my previous post on how HRV can give us a window into the health of our brain by examining a few 2008 papers.

Depression and anxiety is inversely correlated with high frequency HRV (HF HRV), which is considered a specific indicator of the parasympathetic component of the peripheral nervous system (Bleil et. al., 2008). Therefore, low HF HRV is associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety (which agrees with previous research).

To control for the environment and genetics a twin study examined the relationship between HRV and depression and found that for both current depression and a history of major depressive disorder a relationship with lower HRV. The authors suggests there are genetically associated pathways that underlies the link between depression and low HRV (Vaccarino et. al., 2008).

The other question that might arise from the above link between depression and HRV would be is there a potential to use HRV biofeedback to ‘train’ the system to change HRV and relieve depression? In a recent pilot study this is exactly what they did. After 6 sessions of HRV biofeedback spread over 2 weeks (14 depressed patients and 12 healthy controls) at the end of the study the depressed patients had lower depression scores (but there was not a depressed group that went though some form of sham treatment – hence why it is titled a pilot study). Interestingly, HRV in the depressed group was increased after training, while in the healthy group there were no changes (Siepmann et. al., 2008). This indicates that in normal subjects with  average level of HRV that 6 sessions of HRV biofeedback are not enough to raise HRV, while in subjects with low HRV (the depressed patients) the same number of sessions can increase HRV.It would be interesting to know if a longer period of training can increasease HRV in healthy congtrols.

Take home message

HRV is reduced in depression (and a number of other mental disorders) and has a genetic component, but HRV can be increased with HRV biofeedback training.

Now many of you might be wondering what the current financial crisis is doing to your financial, general, and mental health. Does financial stress have a negative effect on us via stress, and can it be measured by HRV. I don’t know the answer but I am guessing if it occured over long term the financial stress would negativley impact our health.

2 comments for “Heart rate variability and your brain: an update

  1. :P
    September 30, 2008 at 6:52 pm

    Are you in favor of or against the bail-out plan? I know you’re not American. But you must have friends there.
    Americans love to save the world and this is now their chance :D

  2. Ward
    October 1, 2008 at 8:40 am

    I find the bailout problem very similar to some science arguments. You can listen to one side and be convinced that they are correct – until you hear the other side and they seem to have just as good argument. It seems like the average American thinks that there should not be a bail out – they think it is only bailing out the rich people running wall street. But I wonder if the problem continues and there is a further loss of ‘confidence’ that the real people that will suffer under a credit crunch will be the everyday citizen.
    But I am not an economist (maybe a neuroeconomist some day :) )