The relationship between BOLD signal and autonomic nervous system functions: Implications for processing of "physiological noise".

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research has revealed not only important aspects of the neural basis of cognitive and perceptual functions, but also important information on the relation between high-level brain functions and physiology. One of the central outstanding questions, given the features of the Blood Oxygenation Level-Dependent (BOLD) signal, is whether and how autonomic nervous system (ANS) functions are related to changes in brain states as measured in the human brain. A straightforward way to address this question has been to acquire external measurements of ANS activity such as cardiac and respiratory data, and examine their relation to the BOLD signal. In this work we describe two conceptual approaches to the treatment of ANS measures in the context of BOLD fMRI analysis. On the one hand, several research lines have treated ANS activity measures as noise, considering them as nothing but a confounding factor that reduces the power of fMRI analysis or its validity. Work in this line has developed powerful methods to remove ANS effects from the BOLD signal. On the other hand, a different line of work has made important progress in showing that ANS functions such as cardiac pulsation, heart rate variability and breathing rate, could be considered as a theoretically meaningful component of the signal that is useful for understanding brain function. Work within this latter framework suggests that caution should be exercised when employing procedures to remove correlations between BOLD data and physiological measures. We discuss these two positions and the reasoning underlying them. Following, we draw on the reviewed literature in presenting practical guidelines for treatment of ANS data, which are based on the premise that ANS data should be considered as theoretically meaningful information. This holds particularly when studying cortical systems involved in regulation, monitoring and/or generation of ANS activity, such as those involved in decision making, conflict resolution and the experience of emotion.