The cardiac cycle time effect revisited: Temporal dynamics of the central-vagal modulation of heart rate in human reaction time tasks


Address reprint requests to: Riek Somsen, Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, Roetersstraat 15, 1018 WB Amsterdam, The Netherlands; e-mail:


Lacey and Lacey (1974) suggested that during reaction time tasks higher brain centers dynamically adjust efferent vagal nerve pulses to the sino-atrial node of the heart, inducing phase-dependent heart rate changes. Since then, animal and human neuro-physiological results have provided evidence for this hypothesis. Higher subcortical and cortical brain centers may have reciprocal interactive pathways relating to autonomic control comparable to those at the level of peripheral autonomic changes and brain stem reflexes. In humans such central effects may be observed in the short latency vagal control of heart rate that has been studied mostly in reaction time (RT) tasks. RT task parameters modulate vagal pulses to the cardiac sino-atrial node (SAN), which in turn exerts a phase-dependent change in the ongoing cardiac interbeat interval. Simulations of human RT task effects in an animal model of heart rate change support this hypothesis. The current study examined evidence for vagal control of three human phasic heart rate responses in RT tasks. The evidence indicates that the initiation of an RT response triggers a reflexive shift from vagal activation to vagal inhibition. This shift is cardiac cycle phase dependent. Graded anticipatory cardiac deceleration during the warning interval of an RT task varies with task relevance and time uncertainty. This response may be part of a control process engaged in time keeping. Hence, temporal variables mediate the central-autonomic-vagal modulation of heart rate.