The redistribution of power: neurocardiac signaling, alcohol and gender

PLoS One. 2011;6(12):e28281. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0028281. Epub 2011 Dec 2.


Human adaptability involves interconnected biological and psychological control processes that determine how successful we are in meeting internal and environmental challenges. Heart rate variability (HRV), the variability in consecutive R-wave to R-wave intervals (RRI) of the electrocardiogram, captures synergy between the brain and cardiovascular control systems that modulate adaptive responding. Here we introduce a qualitatively new dimension of adaptive change in HRV quantified as a redistribution of spectral power by applying the Wasserstein distance with exponent 1 metric (W(1)) to RRI spectral data. We further derived a new index, D, to specify the direction of spectral redistribution and clarify physiological interpretation. We examined gender differences in real time RRI spectral power response to alcohol, placebo and visual cue challenges. Adaptive changes were observed as changes in power of the various spectral frequency bands (i.e., standard frequency domain HRV indices) and, during both placebo and alcohol intoxication challenges, as changes in the structure (shape) of the RRI spectrum, with a redistribution towards lower frequency oscillations. The overall conclusions from the present study are that the RRI spectrum is capable of a fluid and highly flexible response, even when oscillations (and thus activity at the sinoatrial node) are pharmacologically suppressed, and that low frequency oscillations serve a crucial but less studied role in physical and mental health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking*
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Blood Pressure / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cardiovascular System
  • Cues
  • Electrocardiography / methods*
  • Female
  • Heart / physiology*
  • Heart Rate
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Statistical
  • Oscillometry / methods
  • Placebos
  • Sex Factors
  • Vision, Ocular
  • Young Adult


  • Placebos