Functional metrics of autonomic control of heart rate, including baroreflex sensitivity, have been shown to be strongly associated with cardiovascular risk. A decrease in baroreflex sensitivity with aging is hypothesized to represent a contributing causal factor in the etiology of primary hypertension. To assess baroreflex function in human subjects, two complementary methods to simulate the response in heart rate elicited by the Valsalva maneuver were developed and applied to data obtained from a cohort of healthy normal volunteers. The first method is based on representing the baroreflex arc as a simple linear filter, transforming changes in arterial pressure to changes in R-R interval. The second method invokes a physiologically based model for arterial mechanics, afferent baroreceptor strain-dependent firing, and control of heart rate via central autonomic response to changes in afferent inputs from aortic and carotid sensors. Analysis based on the linear filter model reveals that the effective response time of the baroreflex arc tends to increase with age in healthy subjects and that the response time/response rate is a predictor of resting systolic pressure. Similar trends were obtained based on the physiologically based model. Analysis of the Valsalva response using the physiologically based model further reveals that different afferent inputs from the carotid sinus and the aortic arch baroreceptors govern different parts of the heart rate response. The observed relationship between baroreflex sensitivity and systolic pressure is surprising because hypertensive subjects were excluded from the study, and there was no observed relationship between arterial pressure and age. NEW & NOTEWORTHY We introduce two methods to assess baroreflex function from data recorded from human subjects performing the Valsalva maneuver. Results demonstrate that the baroreflex response time tends to increase with age in healthy subjects, that response time represents a predictor of resting systolic pressure, and that the Valsalva response reveals different effects mediated by baroreceptors in the carotid sinus compared with those in the aortic arch.
Keywords: Valsalva; baroreflex; computational physiology.