Heart rate variability (HRV) refers to variation in the interval between successive heart beats. Low HRV is an indicator of potential autonomic nervous system dysfunction. People with chronic pain often display autonomic dysregulation, especially in the parasympathetic nervous system. The hormone oxytocin has been shown to increase HRV in non-clinical samples, but its potential impact on HRV in persons with chronic pain is unknown. This study investigated the impact of intranasal oxytocin on HRV in persons with chronic neck and shoulder pain. Participants included 24 individuals with chronic neck and shoulder pain lasting >12months and 24 age- and sex-matched pain-free controls. In a randomised double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study, participants self-administered intranasal oxytocin (24IU) in one session, and placebo in another, before HRV was recorded at rest and during a mental arithmetic task. Intranasal oxytocin did not influence HRV at rest. However, compared to placebo, intranasal oxytocin elicited small decreases in low-frequency and high-frequency HRV in both groups during the mental arithmetic task. These results suggest that intranasal oxytocin may enhance the salience of the mental arithmetic task, leading to reduced engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system when completing the task. Further investigation and replication of these findings are required to improve our understanding of the effects of intranasal oxytocin on autonomic functioning both at rest and under cognitive stress.
Tracy, L.M., Gibson, S.J., Labuschange, I., Georgiou-Karistianis, N., & Giummarra, M.J. (2018). Intranasal oxytocin reduces heart rate variability during a mental arithmetic task: A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled cross-over study. Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 81: 408-415.