A new signal processing method for the detection of cyclic variations in atrial fibrillation frequency is presented. The objective was to investigate whether or not respiration, through the autonomic nervous system, modulates the fibrillation frequency in patients with permanent atrial fibrillation. A group of eight patients with permanent atrial fibrillation, atrioventricular block III and a permanent pacemaker were studied during rest, rhythm-controlled respiration, with each breath lasting for 8 s (i.e. a breathing frequency of 0.125 Hz), and rhythm-controlled respiration after full vagal blockade by atropine. Using the new method, a spectral peak could be detected, in two of the patients, at the breathing frequency during rhythm-controlled respiration then disappeared after injection of atropine.