Targeting the Autonomic Nervous System Balance in Patients with Chronic Low Back Pain Using Transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation: A Randomized, Crossover, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Pilot Study
Chronic low back pain (CLBP) is characterized by an alteration in pain processing by the central nervous system that may affect autonomic nervous system (ANS) balance. Heart rate variability (HRV) reflects the balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic ANS activation. In particular, respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) solely reflects parasympathetic input and is reduced in CLBP patients. Yet, it remains unknown if non-invasive brain stimulation can alter ANS balance in CLBP patients.
To evaluate if non-invasive brain stimulation modulates the ANS, we analyzed HRV metrics collected in a previously published study of transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) for the modulation of CLBP through enhancing alpha oscillations. We hypothesized that tACS would increase RSA.
A randomized, crossover, double-blind, sham-controlled pilot study was conducted to investigate the effects of 10Hz-tACS on metrics of ANS balance calculated from electrocardiogram (ECG). ECG data were collected for 2 mins before and after 40 mins of 10Hz-tACS or sham stimulation.
There were no significant changes in RSA or other frequency-domain HRV components from 10Hz-tACS. However, exploratory time-domain HRV analyses revealed a significant increase in the standard deviation of normal intervals between R-peaks (SDNN), a measure of ANS balance, for 10Hz-tACS relative to sham.
Although tACS did not significantly increase RSA, we found in an exploratory analysis that tACS modulated an integrated HRV measure of both ANS branches. These findings support the further study of how the ANS and alpha oscillations interact and are modulated by tACS.