Accuracy of assessment of cardiac vagal tone by heart rate variability in normal subjects

Am J Cardiol. 1991 Jan 15;67(2):199-204. doi: 10.1016/0002-9149(91)90445-q.


The correlations of 11 indexes of heart rate variability were examined with pharmacologically determined cardiac vagal tone in 15 normal subjects at supine rest. After sympathetic influences by intravenous propranolol were eliminated, RR interval variability was measured for 10 minutes under controlled respiration (0.25 Hz), and cardiac vagal tone was determined as the decrease in mean RR interval following complete vagal blockade with atropine. Time domain indexes (standard deviation, coefficient of variance and mean successive difference) correlated strongly with vagal tone (r = 0.87, 0.81 and 0.92, respectively; p less than 0.001 for all). The same was true for frequency domain indexes for the high-frequency (0.25 Hz) component calculated both by autoregressive spectrum analysis (square root of power and coefficient of component variance) and by fast Fourier transform (mean amplitude) (r = 0.91, 0.85 and 0.86, respectively; p less than 0.0001 for all). However, frequency domain indexes for the low-frequency spectral component (0.03 to 0.15 Hz) correlated less strongly (r = 0.69, 0.55 and 0.70, respectively), and the fraction of power [power/(total power greater than 0.03 Hz)] of both components showed no correlation. Principal component analysis showed that the first 6 indexes with strong correlations contained solely the first principal component closely related to vagal tone, whereas the remaining 5 indexes also contained the second component unrelated to vagal tone. These results indicate that most of the time and frequency domain analyses in use provides an accurate and common measure of cardiac vagal tone at rest.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Atropine
  • Autonomic Nervous System / drug effects
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Electrocardiography*
  • Fourier Analysis
  • Heart / innervation*
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Propranolol
  • Reference Values
  • Regression Analysis
  • Vagus Nerve / drug effects
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology*


  • Atropine
  • Propranolol