Cardiac adaptivity to attention-demanding tasks in children with a pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)

Biol Psychiatry. 1999 Sep 15;46(6):799-809. doi: 10.1016/s0006-3223(98)00374-6.


Background: Decreases in heart rate variability (HRV) have been repeatedly demonstrated to be an index of effort allocation to attention-demanding tasks. Children with autistic-type problems in social interaction and in adapting to unfamiliar situations (DSM-IV: PDD-NOS) have been shown to have specific attention deficits. These children were hypothesized to exhibit less cardiac adaptivity to attention-demanding tasks.

Methods: Two groups of 18 children with PDD-NOS, judged to be hyperactive and nonhyperactive, were compared to 18 healthy children with respect to their performances on a visual attention task and the differences in HRV measured during periods of task performance and periods of rest.

Results: Compared to the control group, both clinical groups were found to have a stronger capacity limitation in processing high loads of information, and to be less capable of maintaining a stable task performance throughout the whole task. Both clinical groups showed significantly less decreases in HRV during the periods of task performance. The magnitude of rest-task differences in HRV was found to correlate significantly with a behavioral measure of resistance to unexpected changes in daily routines.

Conclusions: Children with PDD-NOS are significantly less flexible in their autonomic adaptation to attention-demanding tasks. The findings are interpreted as reflecting a deficiency in the functional organization of those neural pathways that provide cortical control of the visceral efferents.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / diagnosis*
  • Child
  • Developmental Disabilities / diagnosis*
  • Electrocardiography
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Rest / physiology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Visual Perception / physiology
  • Wechsler Scales