“Brain over body”–A study on the willful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure

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Abstract

The defense of body temperature against environmental thermal challenges is a core objective of homeostatic regulation governed by the autonomic nervous system. Autonomous mechanisms of thermoregulation are only weakly affected by top-down modulation, allowing only transient tolerance for extreme cold. There is however, anecdotal evidence of a unique set of individuals known for extreme cold tolerance. Here we present a case study of a 57-year old Dutch national, Wim Hof, the so-called “Iceman”, with the ability to withstand frequent prolonged periods of extreme cold exposure based on the practice of a self-developed technique involving a combination of forced breathing, cold exposure and meditation (collectively referred to as the Wim Hof Method, henceforth “WHM”). The relative contributions of the brain and the periphery that endow the Iceman with these capabilities is unknown. To investigate this, we conducted multi-modal imaging assessments of the brain and the periphery using a combination of fMRI and PET/CT imaging. Thermoregulatory defense was evoked by subjecting the Iceman (and a cohort of typical controls) to a fMRI paradigm designed to generate periods of mild hypothermia interspersed by periods of return to basal core body temperature. fMRI was acquired in two separate sessions: in a typical (passive) state and following the practice of WHM. In addition, the Iceman also underwent a whole body PET/CT imaging session using the tracers C11-hydroxyephedrine (HED) and 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) during both thermoneutral and prolonged mild cold conditions. This acquisition allowed us to determine changes in sympathetic innervation (HED) and glucose consumption (FDG) in muscle and fat tissues in the absence of the WHM. fMRI analyses indicated that the WHM activates primary control centers for descending pain/cold stimuli modulation in the periaqueductal gray (PAG), possibly initiating a stress-induced analgesic response. In addition, the WHM also engages higher-order cortical areas (left anterior and right middle insula) that are uniquely associated with self-reflection, and which facilitate both internal focus and sustained attention in the presence of averse (e.g. cold) external stimuli. However, the activation of brown adipose tissue (BAT) was unremarkable. Finally, forceful respiration results in increased sympathetic innervation and glucose consumption in intercostal muscle, generating heat that dissipates to lung tissue and warms circulating blood in the pulmonary capillaries. Our results provide compelling evidence for the primacy of the brain (CNS) rather than the body (peripheral mechanisms) in mediating the Iceman's responses to cold exposure. They also suggest the compelling possibility that the WHM might allow practitioners to develop higher level of control over key components of the autonomous system, with implications for lifestyle interventions that might ameliorate multiple clinical syndromes.

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