The association of depression and anxiety with cardiac autonomic activity: The role of confounding effects of antidepressants

Mandy X. Hu*, Yuri Milaneschi, Femke Lamers, Ilja M. Nolte, Harold Snieder, Conor V. Dolan, Brenda W.J.H. Penninx, Eco J.C. de Geus

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: Depression and anxiety may unfavorably impact on cardiac autonomic dysregulation. However, it is unclear whether this relationship results from a causal effect or may be attributable to confounding factors. We tested the relationship between depression and anxiety with heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV) across a 9-year follow-up (FU) period and investigated possible confounding by antidepressant use and genetic pleiotropy. Methods: Data (no. of observations = 6,994, 65% female) were obtained from the longitudinal Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety, with repeated waves of data collection of HR, HRV, depression, anxiety, and antidepressant use. Summary statistics from meta-analyses of genome-wide association studies were used to derive polygenic risk scores of depression, HR, and HRV. Results: Across the 9-year FU, generalized estimating equations analyses showed that the relationship between cardiac autonomic dysregulation and depression/anxiety rendered nonsignificant after adjusting for antidepressant use. A robust association was found between antidepressant use (especially tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin, and noradrenalin reuptake inhibitors) and unfavorable cardiac autonomic activity across all waves. However, no evidence was found for a genetic correlation of depression with HR and HRV, indicating that confounding by genetic pleiotropy is minimal. Conclusions: Our results indicate that the association between depression/anxiety and cardiac autonomic dysregulation does not result from a causal pathway or genetic pleiotropy, and these traits might therefore not be inevitably linked. Previously reported associations were likely confounded by the use of certain classes of antidepressants.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1163-1172
Number of pages10
JournalDepression and Anxiety
Issue number12
Early online date1 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019

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