Aims/hypothesis: Cardiac autonomic neuropathy is associated with increased morbidity and mortality rates in patients with type 1 diabetes. The prevalence of early autonomic abnormalities is relatively high compared with the frequency of manifest clinical abnormalities. Thus, early autonomic dysfunction could to some extent be functional and might lead to an organic disease in a subgroup of patients only. If this is true, manoeuvres such as slow deep-breathing, which can improve baroreflex sensitivity (BRS) in normal but not in denervated hearts, could also modify autonomic modulation in patients with type 1 diabetes, despite autonomic dysfunction.
Methods: We compared 116 type 1 diabetic patients with 36 matched healthy control participants and 12 heart-transplanted participants with surgically denervated hearts. Autonomic function tests and spectral analysis of heart rate and blood pressure variability were performed. BRS was estimated by four methods during controlled (15 breaths per minute) and slow deep-breathing (six breaths per minute), and in supine and standing positions.
Results: Conventional autonomic function tests were normal, but resting spectral variables and BRS were reduced during normal controlled breathing in patients with type 1 diabetes. However, slow deep-breathing improved BRS in patients with type 1 diabetes, but not in patients with surgically denervated hearts. Standing induced similar reductions in BRS in diabetic and control participants.
Conclusions/interpretation: Although we found signs of increased sympathetic activity in patients with type 1 diabetes, we also observed a near normalisation of BRS with a simple functional test, indicating that early autonomic derangements are to a large extent functional and potentially correctable by appropriate interventions.