Brain–heart synchronization is fundamental for emotional-well-being and brain–heart desynchronization is characteristic for anxiety disorders including specific phobias. Recording BOLD signals with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is an important noninvasive diagnostic tool; however, 1–2% of fMRI examinations have to be aborted due to claustrophobia. In the present study, we investigated the information flow between regions of interest (ROI’s) in the cortex and brain stem by using a frequency band close to 0.1 Hz. Causal coupling between signals important in brain–heart interaction (cardiac intervals, respiration, and BOLD signals) was studied by means of Directed Transfer Function based on the Granger causality principle. Compared were initial resting states with elevated anxiety and final resting states with low or no anxiety in a group of fMRI-naïve young subjects. During initial high anxiety the results showed an increased information flow from the middle frontal gyrus (MFG) to the pre-central gyrus (PCG) and to the brainstem. There also was an increased flow from the brainstem to the PCG. While the top-down flow during increased anxiety was predominant, the weaker ascending flow from brainstem structures may characterize a rhythmic pacemaker-like activity that (at least in part) drives respiration. We assume that these changes in information flow reflect successful anxiety processing.
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