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Keywords:

  • Respiratory sinus arrhythmia;
  • Parasympathetic cardiac control;
  • Vagal tone;
  • Heart period;
  • Respiratory influences;
  • Respiration rate;
  • Tidal volume;
  • Beta-adrenergic blockade;
  • Propranolol

ABSTRACT

Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) has received much attention in recent years due to the large body of evidence indicating that variations in this phenomenon represent alterations in parasympathetic cardiac control. Although it appears that respiratory sinus arrhythmia is mediated by vagal mechanisms, the extent to which the well-known respiratory influences (i.e., rate and tidal volume) on respiratory sinus arrhythmia (in altering its magnitude) may moderate the relationship between RSA and cardiac vagal tone has never been systematically studied.

We addressed this issue by examining intraindividual relationships among RSA magnitude, respiration (rate and tidal volume), and heart period among six healthy male adults after intravenous administration of 10 mg propranolol, a beta-adrenergic blocker. Subjects were exposed to various behavioral tasks which altered all physiological variables measured. Variations in heart period after beta blockade were assumed to be predominantly vagally mediated. Within-subject regression analyses consistently showed that respiratory parameters influenced RSA magnitude, but not tonic variations in beta-blocked heart period, suggesting that respiratory-mediated RSA alterations are not associated with changes in cardiac vagal tone. Only when respiratory variables were statistically controlled was there evidence of a reasonable correspondence between beta-blocked heart period and RSA amplitude, providing support for the idea that respiratory parameters need to be controlled when using RSA amplitude as an index of cardiac vagal tone. Repeated-measures analyses of variance of mean levels of heart period and respiratory sinus arrhythmia across subjects supplemented and supported the intraindividual results. These findings point to the importance of controlling for respiratory parameters when using respiratory sinus arrhythmia as a cardiac vagal index.