Morphology of subcortical brain nuclei is associated with autonomic function in healthy humans

James K. Ruffle, Steven J. Coen, Vincent Giampietro, Steven C.R. Williams, A. Vania Apkarian, Adam D. Farmer, Qasim Aziz*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a brain body interface which serves to maintain homeostasis by influencing a plethora of physiological processes, including metabolism, cardiorespiratory regulation and nociception. Accumulating evidence suggests that ANS function is disturbed in numerous prevalent clinical disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia. While the brain is a central hub for regulating autonomic function, the association between resting autonomic activity and subcortical morphology has not been comprehensively studied and thus was our aim. In 27 healthy subjects [14 male and 13 female; mean age 30 years (range 22–53 years)], we quantified resting ANS function using validated indices of cardiac sympathetic index (CSI) and parasympathetic cardiac vagal tone (CVT). High resolution structural magnetic resonance imaging scans were acquired, and differences in subcortical nuclei shape, that is, ‘deformation’, contingent on resting ANS activity were investigated. CSI positively correlated with outward deformation of the brainstem, right nucleus accumbens, right amygdala and bilateral pallidum (all thresholded to corrected P < 0.05). In contrast, parasympathetic CVT negatively correlated with inward deformation of the right amygdala and pallidum (all thresholded to corrected P < 0.05). Left and right putamen volume positively correlated with CVT (r = 0.62, P = 0.0047 and r = 0.59, P = 0.008, respectively), as did the brainstem (r = 0.46, P = 0.049). These data provide novel evidence that resting autonomic state is associated with differences in the shape and volume of subcortical nuclei. Thus, subcortical morphological brain differences in various disorders may partly be attributable to perturbation in autonomic function. Further work is warranted to investigate these findings in clinical populations. Hum Brain Mapp 39:381–392, 2018.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)381-392
Number of pages12
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2018


  • autonomic nervous system
  • brain structure
  • cardiac sympathetic index
  • cardiac vagal tone
  • parasympathetic nervous system
  • structural morphometry
  • sympathetic nervous system
  • vertex analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Neurology
  • Radiological and Ultrasound Technology
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Anatomy


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