Autonomic dysfunction in mild cognitive impairment: Evidence from power spectral analysis of heart rate variability in a cross-sectional case-control study

Paola Nicolini, Michele M. Ciulla, Gabriella Malfatto, Carlo Abbate, Daniela Mari, Paolo D. Rossi, Emanuela Pettenuzzo, Fabio Magrini, Dario Consonni, Federico Lombardi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is set to become a major health problem with the exponential ageing of the world's population. The association between MCI and autonomic dysfunction, supported by indirect evidence and rich with clinical implications in terms of progression to dementia and increased risk of mortality and falls, has never been specifically demonstrated. Aim: To conduct a comprehensive assessment of autonomic function in subjects with MCI by means of power spectral analysis (PSA) of heart rate variability (HRV) at rest and during provocative manoeuvres. Methods: This cross-sectional study involved 80 older outpatients (aged ≥65) consecutively referred to a geriatric unit and diagnosed with MCI or normal cognition (controls) based on neuropsychological testing. PSA was performed on 5-minute electrocardiographic recordings under three conditions - supine rest with free breathing (baseline), supine rest with paced breathing at 12 breaths/minute (parasympathetic stimulation), and active standing (orthosympathetic stimulation) - with particular focus on the changes from baseline to stimulation of indices of sympathovagal balance: normalized low frequency (LFn) and high frequency (HFn) powers and the LF/HF ratio. Blood pressure (BP) was measured at baseline and during standing. Given its exploratory nature in a clinical population the study included subjects on medications with a potential to affect HRV. Results: There were no significant differences in HRV indices between the two groups at baseline. MCI subjects exhibited smaller physiological changes in all three HRV indices during active standing, consistently with a dysfunction of the orthosympathetic system. Systolic BP after 10 minutes of standing was lower in MCI subjects, suggesting dysautonomia-related orthostatic BP dysregulation. Conclusions: Our study is novel in providing evidence of autonomic dysfunction in MCI. This is associated with orthostatic BP dysregulation and the ongoing follow-up of the study population will determine its prognostic relevance as a predictor of adverse health outcomes.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere96656
JournalPLoS One
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 6 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Medicine(all)


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