Can Brain Activity Really Predict Blood Pressure And Future Cardiovascular Health?

Health Visitor Taking Senior Man's Blood Pressure

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You probably know individuals who seem to stress easily, while others are calm, cool, and collected.  These varying levels of stress often affect physical health, specifically cardiovascular health. We often think of stressful situations as causing a short-term, temporary increases in blood pressure.  For example parents might tell their children “you are making my blood pressure go up.”

Other people might get stressed when they go to the doctor and experience what is known as “white coat syndrome” where their blood pressure goes up simply from being in the doctor’s office.  While these short-term spikes in blood pressure may be seen as insignificant by many people, research has shown that they can be an important indicator of long-term cardiovascular health.

So, why do some individuals seem to have their blood pressure go up easily while others individuals do not? A recent study published in the August 2017 issue of Journal of the American Heart Association sought to answer this question. What they discovered was fascinating. There is potentially a “brain phenotype” or observable traits within the brain that predicts a person’s physical reaction to stressful events. Researchers concluded this after studying the brain activity of over 300 middle-aged adults aged 30 to 51 years of age using functional magnetic resonance imaging (f-MRI).

First, a baseline measurement of brain activity was measured using an f-MRI. Then, participants were asked to do mentally stressful tests while still having the brain activity measured. As expected, participants’ brain patterns changed and blood pressure increased during these tests. However, what was not expected was that about 9% of the variance in how a person’s blood pressure changed was related to their brain patterns.

An individual’s change in blood pressure and heart rate in response to stress could be predicted by their brain scan. In fact, specific areas of the brain were identified as particularly important when predicting short-term blood pressure changed. These specific parts of the brain were the same parts of the brain used to determine whether a situation is safe or not. This makes sense, the part of the brain that tells us whether or not we should be scared also influences to how our body reacts to potentially dangerous situations.


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Though this study is interesting, it is unlikely that individuals will begin having f-MRIs simply to know how their body reacts to stress. However, an exciting thing about this research is that it paves the way for brain imaging to be used to identify cardiovascular risk. If these brain scans could be done in early adulthood to determine reactivity or susceptibility to stress, a person would be better positioned to understand their risk. It would then be easier to create different interventions to lessen the risk of long-term cardiovascular health. Until then, we will have focus on keeping low levels of stress to keep blood pressure at a healthy level.