Quantitative studies of autonomic function

Muscle Nerve. 2006 Jan;33(1):6-20. doi: 10.1002/mus.20365.


Dysfunction of the peripheral and central autonomic nervous system is common in many neurological and general medical diseases. The quantitative assessment of sympathetic and parasympathetic function is essential to confirm the diagnosis of autonomic failure, to provide the basis for follow-up examinations, and potentially to monitor successful treatment. Various procedures have been described as useful tools to quantify autonomic dysfunction. The most important tests evaluate cardiovascular and sudomotor autonomic function. In this review, we therefore focus on standard tests of cardiovascular and sudomotor function such as heart-rate variability at rest and during deep breathing, active standing, and the Valsalva maneuver, and on the sympathetic skin response. These tests are widely used for routine clinical evaluation in patients with peripheral neuropathies. Refined methods of studying heart-rate variability, baroreflex testing, and detailed measures of sweat output are mostly used for research purposes. In this context, we describe the spectral analysis of slow modulation of heart rate or blood pressure, reflecting sympathetic and parasympathetic influences, and consider various approaches to baroreflex testing, the thermoregulatory sweat test, and the quantitative sudomotor axon reflex test. Finally, we discuss microneurography as a technique of direct recording of muscle sympathetic nerve activity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Diagnostic Techniques, Neurological*
  • Heart Function Tests*
  • Humans
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology