Autonomic and Brain Morphological Predictors of Stress Resilience

Luca Carnevali, Julian Koenig, Andrea Sgoifo, Cristina Ottaviani

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Stressful life events are an important cause of psychopathology. Humans exposed to aversive or stressful experiences show considerable inter-individual heterogeneity in their responses. However, the majority does not develop stress-related psychiatric disorders. The dynamic processes encompassing positive and functional adaptation in the face of significant adversity have been broadly defined as resilience. Traditionally, the assessment of resilience has been confined to self-report measures, both within the general community and putative high-risk populations. Although this approach has value, it is highly susceptible to subjective bias and may not capture the dynamic nature of resilience, as underlying construct. Recognizing the obvious benefits of more objective measures of resilience, research in the field has just started investigating the predictive value of several potential biological markers. This review provides an overview of theoretical views and empirical evidence suggesting that individual differences in heart rate variability (HRV), a surrogate index of resting cardiac vagal outflow, may underlie different levels of resilience toward the development of stress-related psychiatric disorders. Following this line of thought, recent studies describing associations between regional brain morphometric characteristics and resting state vagally-mediated HRV are summarized. Existing studies suggest that the structural morphology of the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), particularly its cortical thickness, is implicated in the expression of individual differences in HRV. These findings are discussed in light of emerging structural neuroimaging research, linking morphological characteristics of the ACC to psychological traits ascribed to a high-resilient profile and abnormal structural integrity of the ACC to the psychophysiological expression of stress-related mental health consequences. We conclude that a multidisciplinary approach integrating brain structural imaging with HRV monitoring could offer novel perspectives about brain-body pathways in resilience and adaptation to psychological stress.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)228
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - Apr 12 2018


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