Beyond catecholamines: Measuring autonomic responses to psychosocial context

Am J Hum Biol. 2016 May;28(3):309-17. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.22815. Epub 2015 Dec 6.


Despite longstanding interest among human biologists in autonomic responses to socioecological context or culture change, the adoption of autonomic measures has been limited by methodological challenges. Catecholamine secretion is the most direct measure, but not all study designs are amenable to urinary sampling, and blood pressure lacks specificity to the parasympathetic or sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. This article reviews three alternative approaches for measuring autonomic responses: salivary α-amylase as a nonspecific autonomic marker, respiratory sinus arrhythmia as a specific parasympathetic marker, and the pre-ejection period as a specific sympathetic marker. Study design considerations are discussed in detail, including ambulatory sampling protocols that permit the evaluation of autonomic responses to everyday life. Researchers interested in how culture and social experience "get under the skin," as well as those concerned with the evolution of social engagement, can benefit from these well-validated biomarkers that are nevertheless relatively novel in human biology. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 28:309-317, 2016. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

MeSH terms

  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Electrocardiography*
  • Heart Rate*
  • Humans
  • Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia*
  • Salivary alpha-Amylases / metabolism*


  • Salivary alpha-Amylases