Heart rate variability explored in the frequency domain: a tool to investigate the link between heart and behavior

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2009 Feb;33(2):71-80. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2008.07.006. Epub 2008 Jul 30.


The neural regulation of circulatory function is mainly effected through the interplay of the sympathetic and vagal outflows. This interaction can be explored by assessing cardiovascular rhythmicity with appropriate spectral methodologies. Spectral analysis of cardiovascular signal variability, and in particular of RR period (heart rate variability, HRV), is a widely used procedure to investigate autonomic cardiovascular control and/or target function impairment. The oscillatory pattern which characterizes the spectral profile of heart rate and arterial pressure short-term variability consists of two major components, at low (LF, 0.04-0.15Hz) and high (HF, synchronous with respiratory rate) frequency, respectively, related to vasomotor and respiratory activity. With this procedure the state of sympathovagal balance modulating sinus node pacemaker activity can be quantified in a variety of physiological and pathophysiological conditions. Changes in sympathovagal balance can be often detected in basal conditions, however a reduced responsiveness to an excitatory stimulus is the most common feature that characterizes numerous pathophysiological states. Moreover the attenuation of an oscillatory pattern or its impaired responsiveness to a given stimulus can also reflect an altered target function and thus can furnish interesting prognostic markers. The dynamic assessment of these autonomic changes may provide crucial diagnostic, therapeutic and prognostic information, not only in relation to cardiovascular, but also non-cardiovascular disease. As linear methodologies fail to provide significant information in conditions of extremely reduced variability (e.g. strenuous exercise, heart failure) and in presence of rapid and transients changes or coactivation of the two branches of autonomic nervous system, the development of new non-linear approaches seems to provide a new perspective in investigating neural control of cardiovascular system.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Behavior / physiology*
  • Cardiovascular Physiological Phenomena*
  • Electrocardiography / methods
  • Heart / innervation
  • Heart / physiology*
  • Heart Function Tests / methods*
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology