Cardiac autonomic functioning across stress and reward: Links with depression in emerging adults

Jae Wan Choi, Hena Thakur, Joseph R. Cohen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The autonomic nervous system (ANS) has received much attention as a potential low-cost, peripheral indicator of depression. Despite theoretical support, however, results have been mixed as to whether indices of the ANS reliably index depression. In response, the present study sought to clarify the relation between ANS activity and depression by examining cardiac autonomic balance (CAB) and cardiac autonomic regulation (CAR), two composite indices of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, within both a stressful and rewarding context. We hypothesized that CABStress, representing the difference between the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches in response to stress, and CARReward, representing the summation of the two branches in response to reward, will be most indicative of depressogenic risk. We examined the parasympathetic (i.e., respiratory sinus arrhythmia) and sympathetic (i.e., pre-ejection period) responses of 97 emerging adults (Mage = 18.93) for a stress (i.e., negative mood induction) and reward (i.e., probabilistic learning) task, as well as their depressive symptoms at baseline, 3-week, and 6-week follow-up. Analyses found partial support for our hypotheses, revealing greater CARReward (i.e., coactivation of both branches) was related to lower depressive symptoms. Further, exploratory analyses examining gender differences found lower CABStress (i.e., sympathetically-oriented response) was predictive of an increasing trajectory of depression, but only among males. Overall, the current study highlights the importance of simultaneously examining both branches of the ANS across various environmental contexts. Research and clinical implications of the current findings are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-8
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
StatePublished - Oct 2021


  • Autonomic reactivity
  • Cardiac autonomic balance
  • Cardiac autonomic regulation
  • Depression
  • Parasympathetic nervous system
  • Sympathetic nervous system

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)
  • General Neuroscience


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