Traumatic brain injury results in altered physiologic, but not subjective responses to emotional stimuli

Prin X. Amorapanth, Viswanath Aluru, Jennifer Stone, Arash Yousefi, Alvin Tang, Sarah Cox, Seda Bilaloglu, Ying Lu, Joseph Rath, Coralynn Long, Brian Im, Preeti Raghavan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: While the cognitive sequelae of traumatic brain injury (TBI) are well known, emotional impairments after TBI are suboptimally characterized. Lack of awareness of emotional difficulties can make self-report unreliable. However, individuals with TBI demonstrate involuntary changes in heart rate variability which may enable objective quantification of emotional dysfunction. Methods: Sixteen subjects with chronic TBI and 10 age-matched controls were tested on an emotional function battery during which they watched a series of film clips normed to elicit specific positively and negatively valenced emotions: amusement, sexual amusement, sadness, fear and disgust. Subjective responses to the emotional stimuli were also obtained. Additionally, surface electrodes measured cardiac and respiratory signals to compute heart rate variability (HRV), from which measures of parasympathetic activity, the respiratory frequency area (RFA) and sympathetic activity, the low frequency area (LFA), of the HRV frequency spectrum were derived. The Neurobehavioral Rating Scale-Revised (NRS-R) and the King-Devick (KD) test were administered to assess neurobehavioral dysfunction. Results: The two groups showed no differences in subjective ratings of emotional intensity. Subjects with TBI showed significantly decreased sympathetic activity when viewing amusing stimuli and significantly increased sympathetic activity when viewing sad stimuli compared to controls. Most of the subjects did not show agitation, anxiety, depression, blunted affect, emotional withdrawal, decreased motivation or mental fatiguability on the NRS-R. However, 13/16 subjects with TBI demonstrated attention difficulty on the NRS-R which was positively correlated with the increased sympathetic activity during sad stimuli. Both attention difficulty and abnormal autonomic responses to sad stimuli were correlated with the timing on the KD test, which reflected difficulty with visual attention shifting. Conclusions: The HRV spectrum may be useful to identify subclinical emotional dysfunction in individuals with TBI. Attention difficulites, specifically impairment in visual attention shifting, may contribute to abnormal reactivity to sad stimuli that may be detected and potentially treated to improve emotional function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1712-1719
Number of pages8
JournalBrain Injury
Issue number13-14
StatePublished - Dec 6 2018


  • Brain injury
  • attention
  • emotional dysfunction
  • rehabilitation
  • vision

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience (miscellaneous)
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Clinical Neurology


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