Published:  2003-06-01

Vagal influence on working memory and attention

Authors:  Anita Lill Hansen, Bjørn Helge Johnsen, Julian F. Thayer

Tags:  Continuous performance test, Heart rate variability, Working memory

Go to source (DOI)

The aim of the present study was to investigate the effect of vagal tone on performance during executive and non-executive tasks, using a working memory and a sustained attention test. Reactivity to cognitive tasks was also investigated using heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV). Fifty-three male sailors from the Royal Norwegian Navy participated in this study. Inter-beat-intervals were recorded continuously for 5 min of baseline, followed by randomized presentation of a working memory test (WMT) based on Baddeley and Hitch’s research (1974) and a continuous performance test (CPT). The session ended with a 5-min recovery period. High HRV and low HRV groups were formed based on a median split of the root mean squared successive differences during baseline. The results showed that the high HRV group showed more correct responses than the low HRV group on the WMT. Furthermore, the high HRV group showed faster mean reaction time (mRT), more correct responses and less error, than the low HRV group on the CPT. Follow-up analysis revealed that this was evident only for components of the CPT where executive functions were involved. The analyses of reactivity showed a suppression of HRV and an increase in HR during presentation of cognitive tasks compared to recovery. This was evident for both groups. The present results indicated that high HRV was associated with better performance on tasks involving executive function.