Regulation of cardiac rhythm in hibernating mammals

Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol. 1999 Dec;124(4):383-91. doi: 10.1016/s1095-6433(99)00130-0.


The dramatic fall in heart rate exhibited by mammals entering hibernation begins before there is any noticeable fall in body temperature. The initial, progressive decrease in heart rate is the result of a cyclic parasympathetic activation that induces skipped beats and regular asystoles as well as slows the even heart beat. As body temperature subsequently falls, the parasympathetic influence is progressively withdrawn and periods of parasympathetic and sympathetic dominance alternate and give rise to regular periods of arrhythmia (tachycardia followed by bradycardia), and occasional long asystoles or periods of highly irregular cardiac activity. Superimposed on this is a vagally-mediated, respiratory sinus arrhythmia that is accentuated in species that breathe episodically. These events give way to a uniform heart rate in deep hibernation at low temperatures where both parasympathetic and sympathetic tone appear absent. The complete absence of tone is not a function of reduced temperature but is reflective of the state of deep, steady state hibernation. The elevation in heart rate that accompanies the onset of arousal is the result of dramatic increases in sympathetic activation that precede any increases in body temperature. As body temperature then rises, sympathetic influence is slowly withdrawn. Arrhythmias are also common during natural arousals or shifts from lower to warmer hibernation temperatures as periods of parasympathetic and sympathetic dominance again alternate en route to re-establishing a steady state in euthermia. The mechanism behind, and the biological significance of, cardiac changes mediated through orchestrated arrhythmias remain unknown.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Hibernation / physiology*
  • Mammals