Neurogenic orthostatic hypotension (NOH) is a cardinal feature of autonomic dysfunction. The cortical autonomic network (CAN) is a network of brain regions associated with autonomic function. Therefore, our objective was to investigate whether impairment of CAN structures is involved in the pathophysiology of NOH. Fifteen controls (63 ± 13 yr) and 15 NOH patients (67 ± 6 yr; P = 0.2) with peripheral autonomic dysfunction completed standard tests of parasympathetic [deep breathing (DB)] and sympathetic [Valsalva maneuver (VM)] activation during a functional MRI. Blood-oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) contrasts were obtained and contrasted. Compared with controls, patients had significantly smaller heart rate responses to DB (control: 15.23 ± 9.6 vs. NOH: 5.7 ± 2.1) and Valsalva ratios (control: 2.1 ± 0.47 vs. NOH: 1.2 ± 0.1; P < 0.001). NOH patients had absent adrenergic phases (late phase II and phase IV) during VM as per a qualitative analysis. During VM, controls had greater activation in the right hippocampus (T-value: 8.03), left posterior cingulate (TL: 7.6), and bilateral thalamus (TR: 7.41, TL: 8.45; P < 0.05). During phase IV, controls had greater activation in the right hippocampus (TR: 5.78l P < 0.05). Following subtraction analysis, no significant differences were evident during DB. In conclusion, NOH patients have significantly less CAN activation during sympathetic, but not parasympathetic, activation. Impaired CANs associated with sympathetic activation may be involved in the pathophysiology of NOH. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Neurogenic orthostatic hypotension (NOH) is a cardinal feature of autonomic dysfunction characterized by failure of reflexive sympathetic activation. Our result reveal that patients with autonomic dysfunction caused by postganglionic sympathetic impairment also have impaired activation of structures within the cortical autonomic network. Impaired activation is evident during a test of sympathetic, but not parasympathetic, activation. Impaired cortical autonomic networks associated with sympathetic activation may be involved in the pathophysiology of NOH.
Keywords: autonomic dysfunction; functional imaging; neurogenic orthostatic hypotension; standard autonomic testing.