Atypical autonomic regulation in perpetrators of violent domestic abuse

Authors


Address reprint requests to: John C. Umhau, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Laboratory of Clinical Studies, 10 Center Drive MSC-1610, Building 10, Room 6S-240, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA. E-mail: Umhau@nih.gov.

Abstract

Perpetrators of domestic violence describe symptoms that are compatible with exaggerated autonomic arousal at the time of the domestic violence. This inappropriate arousal may be reflected in altered heart rate regulation. If heart rate is systematically regulated by vagal mechanisms, then increases in heart rate should correlate with decreases in cardiac vagal activity, as indexed by respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). We hypothesized that perpetrators of domestic violence have an alteration in heart rate regulation. To test this hypothesis we compared the results of a postural shift performed on perpetrators, healthy volunteers, and nonviolent alcoholics. Results showed there were no significant differences in heart rate, RSA, or catecholamines. However, the significant inverse relationship between posture-elicited changes in RSA and heart rate present in the healthy volunteers was not found in perpetrators. These differences in the covariation between heart rate and RSA may represent differences in the neural regulation of heart rate and may be related to difficulties in controlling autonomic state.

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