Parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems interactively predict change in cognitive functioning in midlife adults

Erik L. Knight, Ryan J. Giuliano, Sean W. Shank, Megan M. Clarke, David M. Almeida

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) have been individually linked to changes in cognitive functioning: The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) has been associated with healthy cognitive aging, whereas excessive sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity has been linked to heightened cognitive decline. Despite these separate findings and despite the integrative nature of the ANS, little work has examined the two branches simultaneously to better understand their interactive effects on changes in cognitive functioning in midlife adults. We examined cognitive change in two waves of the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study cognitive project and indexed PNS and SNS activity from heart rate variability and epinephrine levels, respectively, from the MIDUS biomarker project (minimum n = 843, 57.9% female, mean age at first wave = 53.8 years). Our findings indicate that greater PNS responsivity (i.e., greater withdrawal and greater recovery) in response to cognitive challenge is associated with attenuated cognitive decline, but only among individuals with low SNS levels; at higher SNS levels, the effects of the PNS on cognitive decline are attenuated. These results suggest that future research targeting the ANS and cognitive aging should consider both ANS branch's effects simultaneously.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere13622
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Biological Psychiatry


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