Background: The literature measuring effects of antidepressant and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for major depression on heart rate variability (HRV) in medically well individuals was reviewed.
Methods: Fourteen studies evaluating HRV were included. Twenty three pre-post or within group comparisons were available. Treatment impact on measures of HRV was pooled over studies. We examined different classes of antidepressants, and for short and long electrocardiogram (ECG) recordings separately.
Results: Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) were associated with declines in most measures of HRV and significant increase in heart rate (HR) in studies with short recording intervals. No significant changes were found for longer recording times.Treatment effects with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) were more variable. Short-recording studies revealed a significant decrease in HR and an increase in one HRV measure. In two 24-hour recording studies no significant changes were observed. No relationship between ECT and HRV has been established in the literature. The effects of other drugs are reported.
Limitations: Few studies measure the effects of treatment of depression on HRV. Existing studies have generally used very small samples, employing a variety of measurements and methodologies.
Conclusion: We confirm that TCAs are associated with a large decrease in HRV and increase HR. However, data for SSRIs is not clear. Although the effect of SSRIs on HRV is weaker than for TCAs, evidence shows that SSRIs are associated with a small decrease in HR, and an increase in one measure of HRV. The use of TCAs in depression leads to changes in HRV that are associated with increased risk of mortality.