Heart Rate Variability (HRV) has been suggested as a useful tool to assess fatigue-sensitive psychological operations. The present study uses between and within-subject design to examine the temporal profile of HRV including the changes related to reactivity, time-on-task (ToT), and recovery on a cognitively demanding task. In the fatigue group, participants worked on a bimodal 2-back task with a game-like character (the gatekeeper task) for about 1.5 hours, followed by a 12-minute break, and a post-break block of performance (about 18 min). In the control group, participants watched documentaries. We hypothesized that mental fatigue is associated with low physiological arousal and increasing vagal-mediated HRV as a function of ToT. We also analysed the trial-based post-response cardiac activity as a physiological indicator of task-related motivation. Relative to the control, ToT was associated with an elevated level of subjective fatigue, decreased heart rate, and increased HRV most robustly in the vagal-mediated components. Based on fatigued participants post-error cardiac slowing, and post-error reaction time analyses, we found no evidence for motivation deficit in association with increasing HRV and ToT. The present findings support the low arousal state of mental fatigue and suggest that primarily the vagal components of the HRV spectrum are indicative of fatigue. In addition, the study provides evidence that many HRV indices might be changed not only in a fatiguing condition but also if individuals are engaged in a prolonged non-fatiguing activity. This finding emphasizes the relevance of control conditions in ToT experiments.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience