Sympathetic control of short-term heart rate variability and its pharmacological modulation

Fundam Clin Pharmacol. 2007 Aug;21(4):337-47. doi: 10.1111/j.1472-8206.2007.00502.x.


The static relationship between heart rate (HR) and the activity of either vagal or sympathetic nerves is roughly linear within the physiological range of HR variations. The dynamic control of HR by autonomic nerves is characterized by a fixed time delay between the onset of changes in nerve activity and the onset of changes in HR. This delay is much longer for sympathetically than for vagally mediated changes in HR. In addition, the kinetics of the HR responses shows the properties of a low-pass filter with short (vagal) and long (sympathetic) time constants. These differences might be secondary to differences in nervous conduction times, width of synaptic cleft, kinetics of receptor activation and post-receptor events. Because of the accentuated low-pass filter characteristics of the HR response to sympathetic modulation, sympathetic influences are almost restricted to the very-low-frequency component of HR variability, but the chronotropic effects of vagal stimulation usually predominate over those of sympathetic stimulation in this frequency band. Oscillations in cardiac sympathetic nerve activity are not involved in respiratory sinus arrhythmia (high-frequency component) and make a minor contribution to HR oscillations of approximately 10-s period (low-frequency component of approximately 0.1 Hz), at least in the supine position. In the latter case, HR oscillations are derived mainly from a baroreflex, vagally mediated response to blood pressure Mayer waves. Beta-blockers and centrally acting sympathoinhibitory drugs share the ability to improve the baroreflex control of HR, possibly through vagal facilitation, which might be beneficial in several cardiovascular diseases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Baroreflex / physiology
  • Blood Pressure / drug effects
  • Blood Pressure / physiology
  • Heart / innervation*
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Cardiovascular
  • Oscillometry
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology


  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists