Published:  2013-04-29

Measuring Cardiac Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) Activity in Children

Authors:  Aimée E. van Dijk, René van Lien, Manon van Eijsden, Reinoud J. B. J. Gemke, Tanja G. M. Vrijkotte, Eco J. de Geus


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The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls mainly automatic bodily functions that are engaged in homeostasis, like heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, salivation, perspiration and renal function. The ANS has two main branches: the sympathetic nervous system, preparing the human body for action in times of danger and stress, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates the resting state of the body. ANS activity can be measured invasively, for instance by radiotracer techniques or microelectrode recording from superficial nerves, or it can be measured non-invasively by using changes in an organ’s response as a proxy for changes in ANS activity, for instance of the sweat glands or the heart. Invasive measurements have the highest validity but are very poorly feasible in large scale samples where non-invasive measures are the preferred approach. Autonomic effects on the heart can be reliably quantified by the recording of the electrocardiogram (ECG) in combination with the impedance cardiogram (ICG), which reflects the changes in thorax impedance in response to respiration and the ejection of blood from the ventricle into the aorta. From the respiration and ECG signals, respiratory sinus arrhythmia can be extracted as a measure of cardiac parasympathetic control. From the ECG and the left ventricular ejection signals, the preejection period can be extracted as a measure of cardiac sympathetic control. ECG and ICG recording is mostly done in laboratory settings. However, having the subjects report to a laboratory greatly reduces ecological validity, is not always doable in large scale epidemiological studies, and can be intimidating for young children. An ambulatory device for ECG and ICG simultaneously resolves these three problems. Here, we present a study design for a minimally invasive and rapid assessment of cardiac autonomic control in children, using a validated ambulatory device 1-5, the VU University Ambulatory Monitoring System (VU-AMS, Amsterdam, the Netherlands,