Heart Rate Variability

One of the main challenges in behavioural neuroscience is to improve the translational validity of the animal models for the human condition. The lack of success in the development of new drugs for psychiatric disorders has led many pharmaceutical companies to abandon research in the area completely, despite the substantial need for better drugs for mental disorders.

To improve the chances of identifying more successful psychoactive drugs, we are evaluating the usefulness of heart rate variability (HRV). HRV refers to the beat-to-beat variation in individual heartbeats. Studies in healthy volunteers have found that low HRV is typically associated with low emotional stability and with low cognitive flexibility. As a result of this, reductions in HRV are often reported in clinical populations, such as patients suffering from schizophrenia, major depressive disorder or autism spectrum disorders.

One of the major benefits of HRV is that it can be assessed in humans and rat with virtually identical methods. In our rat studies, we use an implantable probe system which allows continuous recording in freely moving animals. However, there are many different components to HRV. For instance, HRV can be assessed using linear methods in either the time or the frequency domain. While this represents the most often used methodology, they actually are a simplification of the real process of HRV, which iss more accurately described as a non-linear system.

In this project, we investigate the neurobiological mechanisms underlying HRV in order to assess its potential applicability as a biomarker for specific mental disorders. One of the aspects of the project to investigate how HRV in rats is affected by specific drugs, or genetic alterations. In addition to assessing the standard linear parameters, we also investigate several non-linear methods. This will allow us to investigate the exact contribution of different neurotransmitter system and brain regions in the regulation of HRV.