Objectives: Heart rate variability is controlled by the autonomic nervous system. After brain death, this autonomic control stops, and heart rate variability is significantly decreased. However, it is unknown if early changes in heart rate variability are predictive of progression to brain death. We hypothesized that in brain-injured children, lower heart rate variability is an early indicator of autonomic system failure, and it predicts progression to brain death. We additionally explored the association between heart rate variability and markers of brain dysfunction such as electroencephalogram and neurologic examination between brain-injured children who progressed to brain death and those who survived.
Design: Retrospective case-control study.
Setting: PICU, single institution.
Patients: Children up to 18 years with a Glasgow Coma Scale score of less than 8 admitted between August of 2016 and December of 2017, who had electrocardiographic data available for heart rate variability analysis, were included.
Exclusion criteria: patients who died of causes other than brain death. Twenty-three patients met inclusion criteria: six progressed to brain death (cases), and 17 survived (controls). Five-minute electrocardiogram segments were used to estimate heart rate variability in the time domain (SD of normal-normal intervals, root mean square successive differences), frequency domain (low frequency, high frequency, low frequency/high frequency ratio), Poincaré plots, and approximate entropy.
Measurements and main results: Patients who progressed to brain death exhibited significantly lower heart rate variability in the time domain, frequency domain, and Poincaré plots (p < 0.01). The odds of death increased with decreasing low frequency (odds ratio, 4.0; 95% CI, 1.2-13.6) and high frequency (odds ratio, 2.5; 95% CI, 1.2-5.4) heart rate variability power (p < 0.03). Heart rate variability was significantly lower in those with discontinuous or attenuated/featureless electroencephalogram versus those with slow/disorganized background (p < 0.03).
Conclusions: These results support the concept of autonomic system failure as an early indicator of impending brain death in brain-injured children. Furthermore, decreased heart rate variability is associated with markers of CNS dysfunction such as electroencephalogram abnormalities.