Dr Katharine Simon on Contributors to Autonomic Dysfunction, Implications for Sleep and Health

Katharine Simon, PhD, clinical pediatric psychologist, and postdoctoral researcher, Sleep and Cognition Lab, UC Irvine, explains the influence of the autonomic nervous system on body functions and recommendations for patients experiencing autonomic imbalance and sleep dysregulation.

As the autonomic nervous system develops across the lifespan, its interaction with the central nervous system and psychological factors, such as systemic oppression, may play a significant role in manifesting sleep dysregulation, said Katharine Simon, PhD, clinical pediatric psychologist, and postdoctoral researcher, Sleep and Cognition Lab, UC Irvine.

Simon will cochair a session at SLEEP 2021 titled “The Role of the Autonomic Nervous System in the Science of Sleep.”


Can you speak on current comprehension of the autonomic nervous system in sleep?

The autonomic nervous system is more typically known for its role in regulating involuntary body functions, so breathing, respiration, digestion, and heart rate, but more recent investigations have found that it also influences cognition. And so during our seminar speakers are going to be giving the most up-to-date understanding of the role of the autonomic system as it interacts with the central nervous system to influence cognition and influence emotional processing.

How may autonomic regulation of sleep differ by race/ethnicity? Are there any subgroups who may be at increased risk of autonomic dysfunction?

Across the lifespan, there's rapid development of the autonomic nervous system in early infancy and childhood, snd we know there's a gradual decline in parasympathetic activity from adolescence to the end of life.

There's likely not inherent race or ethnic differences in autonomic regulation of sleep; rather, systemic racism, and the health consequences that occur from that, likely impact cardiac activity and manifest in sleep dysregulation. And so, groups who are subject to systematic and institutional oppression are those who are likely at heightened health risk, and then from there that might also influence sleep dysregulation.

With research associating the autonomic nervous system with neurologic, cardiovascular, and other diseases, what are some best practices to monitor for signs of these issues?

So, our speakers are all researchers and they're not medical professionals, but we do know that aging and disease contribute to autonomic imbalance and that this autonomic imbalance can also impact sleep. So, as a clinical psychologist myself, I always recommend that those who are experiencing health concerns and related sleep disturbances seek out medical professionals for evaluation, whether it's doctors for sleep studies or psychologists to support cognitive interventions, and that way we hope to promote healthy sleep throughout the lifespan.

I think this is a really exciting time to be looking at the autonomic nervous system and how it couples with the central nervous system to support cognition and emotion. It's definitely a newfound area. And I think that the more research that bridges these 2 domains together will really help us to understand underlying sleep-dependent memory mechanisms and underlying sleep-dependent cognition mechanisms.