Decreased vagal activity is frequently observed in coronary artery disease, but the mechanism of this association is unknown. We investigated cardiac autonomic function by relating heart rate spectral components to clinical and angiographic findings in 80 patients who were undergoing coronary angiography. The age- and sex-adjusted magnitude of the respiratory spectral component, which is an index of cardiac vagal tone, showed a significant negative correlation with the extent of coronary atheromatosis (r = -0.43, p less than 0.0001) and a less significant negative correlation with the severity of coronary stenosis (r = -0.30, p = 0.0070). These relationships were independent of previous myocardial infarction and of left ventricular function. Stepwise regression analysis showed that the respiratory spectral component contributed to atheromatosis independently of established coronary risk factors (partial R2 = 9.4%, p = 0.002), but not to stenosis. Our results support the hypothesis that decreased cardiac vagal activity is associated with an increased risk of coronary atherosclerosis.