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Journal Article

Voluntary upregulation of heart rate variability through biofeedback is improved by mental contemplative training


Bornemann,  Boris
Department Social Neuroscience, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Bornemann, B., Kovacs, P., & Singer, T. (2019). Voluntary upregulation of heart rate variability through biofeedback is improved by mental contemplative training. Scientific Reports, 9: 7860. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-44201-7.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0003-F336-E
Regulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, indexed through high frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV), is indicative of physical and psychological health. However, little is known about the trainability of this capacity. We investigated the effects of a 9-month mental training program (the ReSource Project; n = 298) on voluntary HF-HRV upregulation, assessed with a novel biofeedback procedure. The program consisted of attentional, interoceptive, socio-affective and socio-cognitive training elements, all of which potentially influence parasympathetic regulation. Based on known links between oxytocin and parasympathetic activity, we also explored the relationship of HF-HRV upregulation to the oxytocin receptor system. We found that HF-HRV during the biofeedback session increased after 3 months of training, concomitant with prolonged respiration cycles. Breathing-controlled changes in HF-HRV upregulation, indicative of improved parasympathetic control, were significantly increased after 6 months of training. Homozygous risk allele carriers (AA) of the oxytocin receptor gene polymorphism rs53576 showed initially lower parasympathetic control, but fully compensated for their initial deficits through the training. No changes were found for HF-HRV at rest. Our data demonstrate that a mental training intervention extending over several months can increase the capacity for voluntary regulation of HF-HRV, with important implications for improving individual and societal health.