Measures of CNS-Autonomic Interaction and Responsiveness in Disorder of Consciousness

Authors: Francesco Riganello, Stephen Karl Larroque, Carol Di Perri, Valeria Prada, Walter G. Sannita and Steven Laureys – Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated functional interactions between autonomic (ANS) and brain (CNS) structures involved in higher brain functions, including attention and conscious processes. These interactions have been described by the Central Autonomic Network (CAN), a concept model based on the brain-heart two-way integrated interaction. Heart rate variability (HRV) measures proved reliable as non-invasive descriptors of the ANS-CNS function setup and are thought to reflect higher brain functions. Autonomic function, ANS-mediated responsiveness and the ANS-CNS interaction qualify as possible independent indicators for clinical functional assessment and prognosis in Disorders of Consciousness (DoC). HRV has proved helpful to investigate residual responsiveness in DoC and predict clinical recovery. Variability due to internal (e.g., homeostatic and circadian processes) and environmental factors remains a key independent variable and systematic research with this regard is warranted. The interest in bidirectional ANS-CNS interactions in a variety of physiopathological conditions is growing, however, these interactions have not been extensively investigated in DoC. In this brief review we illustrate the potentiality of brain-heart investigation by means of HRV analysis in assessing patients with DoC. The authors’ opinion is that this easy, inexpensive and non-invasive approach may provide useful information in the clinical assessment of this challenging patient population.

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