Toward understanding respiratory sinus arrhythmia: relations to cardiac vagal tone, evolution and biobehavioral functions

Biol Psychol. 2007 Feb;74(2):263-85. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2005.11.014. Epub 2006 Nov 1.


Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA, or high-frequency heart-rate variability) is frequently employed as an index of cardiac vagal tone or even believed to be a direct measure of vagal tone. However, there are many significant caveats regarding vagal tone interpretation: 1. Respiratory parameters can confound relations between RSA and cardiac vagal tone.2. Although intraindividual relations between RSA and cardiac vagal control are often strong, interindividual associations may be modest.3. RSA measurement is profoundly influenced by concurrent levels of momentary physical activity, which can bias estimation of individual differences in vagal tone.4. RSA magnitude is affected by beta-adrenergic tone.5. RSA and cardiac vagal tone can dissociate under certain circumstances.6. The polyvagal theory contains evolution-based speculations that relate RSA, vagal tone and behavioral phenomena. We present evidence that the polyvagal theory does not accurately depict evolution of vagal control of heart-rate variability, and that it ignores the phenomenon of cardiac aliasing and disregards the evolution of a functional role for vagal control of the heart, from cardiorespiratory synchrony in fish to RSA in mammals. Unawareness of these issues can lead to misinterpretation of cardiovascular autonomic mechanisms. On the other hand, RSA has been shown to often provide a reasonable reflection of cardiac vagal tone when the above-mentioned complexities are considered. Finally, a recent hypothesis is expanded upon, in which RSA plays a primary role in regulation of energy exchange by means of synchronizing respiratory and cardiovascular processes during metabolic and behavioral change.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Arrhythmia, Sinus / physiopathology*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Respiratory Physiological Phenomena*
  • Vagus Nerve / physiopathology*