The differentiation between Parkinson's disease (PD), progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), and multiple system atrophy (MSA) may be difficult but is important for prognostic and therapeutic purposes. Varying degrees of autonomic failure have been described in PD and MSA, whereas its involvement in PSP remains controversial. The aim of this study was to investigate autonomic function in patients fulfilling strict clinical diagnostic criteria for the disorders above, to evaluate the diagnostic capacity of laboratory autonomic tests. The study group was consecutively recruited among patients referred to a movement disorder unit. Thirty-four patients with PD, 15 patients with PSP, and 47 patients with MSA were compared with 18 healthy age-matched controls. Autonomic tests included analysis of heart rate variability (HRV) in temporal domain, at rest and during forced respiration, as well as blood pressure (BP) changes during 75° head-up tilt.
HRV did not differ between groups during quiet breathing but was significantly reduced during forced respiration in MSA (P < 0.01), while PD and PSP groups did not differ from controls. Hypotensive responses during orthostatic provocation were seen in PD (P < 0.01) and MSA (P < 0.001), whereas BP remained stable in most PSP patients, not differing from the healthy control group. On an individual basis, decreased HRV and severe hypotensive responses were seen in MSA patients regardless of age and disease duration, whereas PD patients showed this combination only at high age and long duration. In PSP, only a few cases with decreased HRV and limited hypotensive responses were found. We conclude that cardiovascular reflex tests can supplement the clinical differentiation of Parkinsonian syndromes. © 2001 Movement Disorder Society.