Cortical thickness and resting-state cardiac function across the lifespan: A cross-sectional pooled mega-analysis

Julian Koenig*, Birgit Abler, Ingrid Agartz, Torbjörn Åkerstedt, Ole A. Andreassen, Mia Anthony, Karl Jürgen Bär, Katja Bertsch, Rebecca C. Brown, Romuald Brunner, Luca Carnevali, Hugo D. Critchley, Kathryn R. Cullen, Eco J.C. de Geus, Feliberto de la Cruz, Isabel Dziobek, Marc D. Ferger, Håkan Fischer, Herta Flor, Michael GaeblerPeter J. Gianaros, Melita J. Giummarra, Steven G. Greening, Simon Guendelman, James A.J. Heathers, Sabine C. Herpertz, Mandy X. Hu, Sebastian Jentschke, Michael Kaess, Tobias Kaufmann, Bonnie Klimes-Dougan, Stefan Koelsch, Marlene Krauch, Deniz Kumral, Femke Lamers, Tae Ho Lee, Mats Lekander, Feng Lin, Martin Lotze, Elena Makovac, Matteo Mancini, Falk Mancke, Kristoffer N.T. Månsson, Stephen B. Manuck, Mara Mather, Frances Meeten, Jungwon Min, Bryon Mueller, Vera Muench, Frauke Nees, Lin Nga, Gustav Nilsonne, Daniela Ordonez Acuna, Berge Osnes, Cristina Ottaviani, Brenda W.J.H. Penninx, Allison Ponzio, Govinda R. Poudel, Janis Reinelt, Ping Ren, Michiko Sakaki, Andy Schumann, Lin Sørensen, Karsten Specht, Joana Straub, Sandra Tamm, Michelle Thai, Julian F. Thayer, Benjamin Ubani, Denise J. van der Mee, Laura S. van Velzen, Carlos Ventura-Bort, Arno Villringer, David R. Watson, Luqing Wei, Julia Wendt, Melinda Westlund Schreiner, Lars T. Westlye, Mathias Weymar, Tobias Winkelmann, Guo Rong Wu, Hyun Joo Yoo, Daniel S. Quintana

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


Understanding the association between autonomic nervous system [ANS] function and brain morphology across the lifespan provides important insights into neurovisceral mechanisms underlying health and disease. Resting-state ANS activity, indexed by measures of heart rate [HR] and its variability [HRV] has been associated with brain morphology, particularly cortical thickness [CT]. While findings have been mixed regarding the anatomical distribution and direction of the associations, these inconsistencies may be due to sex and age differences in HR/HRV and CT. Previous studies have been limited by small sample sizes, which impede the assessment of sex differences and aging effects on the association between ANS function and CT. To overcome these limitations, 20 groups worldwide contributed data collected under similar protocols of CT assessment and HR/HRV recording to be pooled in a mega-analysis (N = 1,218 (50.5% female), mean age 36.7 years (range: 12–87)). Findings suggest a decline in HRV as well as CT with increasing age. CT, particularly in the orbitofrontal cortex, explained additional variance in HRV, beyond the effects of aging. This pattern of results may suggest that the decline in HRV with increasing age is related to a decline in orbitofrontal CT. These effects were independent of sex and specific to HRV; with no significant association between CT and HR. Greater CT across the adult lifespan may be vital for the maintenance of healthy cardiac regulation via the ANS—or greater cardiac vagal activity as indirectly reflected in HRV may slow brain atrophy. Findings reveal an important association between CT and cardiac parasympathetic activity with implications for healthy aging and longevity that should be studied further in longitudinal research.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2020


  • aging
  • autonomic nervous system
  • cortical thickness
  • heart rate
  • heart rate variability
  • sex


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