Published:  2019-11-01

Baseline autonomic nervous system activity in female children and adolescents with conduct disorder: Psychophysiological findings from the FemNAT-CD study

Authors:  Helena Oldenhof, Martin Prätzlich, Katharina Ackermann, Rosalind Baker, Molly Batchelor, Sarah Baumann, Anka Bernhard, Roberta Clanton, Dimitris Dikeos, Roberta Dochnal, Lynn Valérie Fehlbaum, Aranzazu Fernández-Rivas, Eco de Geus, Karen Gonzalez, Maider González de Artaza-Lavesa, Silvina Guijarro, Malou Gundlach, Beate Herpertz-Dahlmann, Amaia Hervas, Lucres Jansen, Linda Kersten, Gregor Kohls, Angeliki Konsta, Helen Lazaratou, Iñaki Kerexeta-Lizeaga, Anne Martinelli, Tisse van Nimwegen, Ignazio Puzzo, Nora Maria Raschle, Jack Rogers, Réka Siklósi, Areti Smaragdi, Martin Steppan, Stephane De Brito, Graeme Fairchild, Meinhard Kieser, Kerstin Konrad, Christine Freitag, Christina Stadler, Arne Popma

Tags:  Autonomic nervous system, Conduct disorder, Emotion regulation, Psychophysiology, Sex differences

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Autonomic nervous system (ANS) functioning has been widely studied in relation to antisocial behavior, such as Conduct Disorder (CD). However, research in females is scarce and findings are inconsistent. This study investigated baseline ANS activity in CD children and adolescents and tested for sex differences. Furthermore, subgroups of CD were investigated: +/‐ Limited Prosocial Emotions (LPE), +/‐ comorbid internalizing disorders (INT).
Baseline ANS activity was measured by Heart Rate (HR), Heart Rate Variability (HRV; parasympathetic activity), Pre-Ejection Period (PEP; sympathetic activity), and Respiration Rate (RR). 659 females (296 CD, 363 controls) and 351 males (187 CD, 164 controls), aged 9–18 years participated.
Baseline HR, HRV and PEP did not differ between CD subjects and controls in both sexes. RR was higher in CD participants than controls amongst females, but not males. LPE was unrelated to ANS activity, whereas females with CD + INT presented lower HRV.
These results suggest that baseline ANS activity is not a robust indicator for CD. However, deviant ANS activity – especially parasympathetic activity – was observed in CD females with internalizing comorbidity. The psychophysiological abnormalities observed in this subgroup are indicative of emotion regulation problems. Accordingly, this subgroup may require specific interventions.