Neurohumoral modulation of cardiovascular function is an important component of the hemodynamic alterations in patients with chronic congestive heart failure (CHF). Analysis of heart rate (HR) variability is a noninvasive means of investigating the autonomic control of the heart. The variability of HR and respiratory signals, both derived from ambulatory electrocardiographic recordings, were analyzed with power spectral analysis to evaluate autonomic control in 25 patients with chronic stable CHF (class III or IV) and 21 normal control subjects. In the patients with CHF, HR spectral power was markedly reduced (p less than 0.0001) at all frequencies examined (0.01 to 1.0 Hz, period 1 to 100 seconds) and virtually absent at frequencies greater than 0.04 Hz. Heart rate fluctuations at very low frequencies (0.01 to 0.04 Hz) less effectively differentiated CHF patients from control subjects, due to discrete (about 65 seconds, 0.015 Hz) oscillation in HR, which was associated with a similar pattern in respiratory activity in many of the patients with CHF. These findings demonstrate a marked derangement of HR modulation in patients with severe CHF. The frequency characteristics of HR fluctuations in these patients are consistent with abnormal baroreflex responsiveness to physiologic stimuli, and suggest that there is diminished vagal, but relatively preserved sympathetic, modulation of HR.