Neuroanatomical substrates for the volitional regulation of heart rate

Catherine L. Jones, Ludovico Minati, Yoko Nagai, Nick Medford, Neil A. Harrison, Marcus Gray, Jamie Ward, Hugo D. Critchley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The control of physiological arousal can assist in the regulation of emotional state. A subset cortical and subcortical brain regions are implicated in autonomic control of bodily arousal during emotional behaviors. Here, we combined human functional neuroimaging with autonomic monitoring to identify neural mechanisms that support the volitional regulation of heart rate, a process that may be assisted by visual feedback. During functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), 15 healthy adults performed an experimental task in which they were prompted voluntarily to increase or decrease cardiovascular arousal (heart rate) during true, false, or absent visual feedback. Participants achieved appropriate changes in heart rate, without significant modulation of respiratory rate, and were overall not influenced by the presence of visual feedback. Increased activity in right amygdala, striatum and brainstem occurred when participants attempted to increase heart rate. In contrast, activation of ventrolateral prefrontal and parietal cortices occurred when attempting to decrease heart rate. Biofeedback enhanced activity within occipito-temporal cortices, but there was no significant interaction with task conditions. Activity in regions including pregenual anterior cingulate and ventral striatum reflected the magnitude of successful task performance, which was negatively related to subclinical anxiety symptoms. Measured changes in respiration correlated with posterior insula activation and heart rate, at a more lenient threshold, change correlated with insula, caudate, and midbrain activity. Our findings highlight a set of brain regions, notably ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, supporting volitional control of cardiovascular arousal. These data are relevant to understanding neural substrates supporting interaction between intentional and interoceptive states related to anxiety, with implications for biofeedback interventions, e.g., real-time fMRI, that target emotional regulation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number300
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberMAR
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Autonomic
  • Biofeedback
  • Brain imaging
  • Emotion
  • Heart rate
  • Interoception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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