Objectives: This study was conducted to determine the effect of long-term digoxin therapy on autonomic function in patients with mild to moderate chronic heart failure.
Background: Chronic heart failure is characterized by increased sympathetic activity and decreased parasympathetic activity. Intravenous digitalis has been found to reduce sympathetic activity immediately in these patients, but whether short-term neurohormonal effects are sustained during long-term oral therapy has not been assessed.
Methods: We determined sympathetic activity in 26 patients with heart failure by measuring plasma norepinephrine levels and parasympathetic activity from variables of heart period variability derived from 24-h ambulatory electrocardiographic Holter recordings obtained before and after 4 to 8 weeks of digoxin therapy.
Results: After digoxin therapy, plasma norepinephrine decreased significantly from a mean +/- SEM of 552 +/- 80 to 390 +/- 37 ng/ml. In addition, the RR interval increased significantly from 719 +/- 19 to 771 +/- 20 ms. High frequency power increased from 84 +/- 24 to 212 +/- 72 ms2, and the root mean square of successive differences in RR interval increased from 20.3 +/- 1.8 to 27.0 +/- 3.4 ms, indicating a substantial increase in parasympathetic activity. Low frequency power, an index of baroreflex activity, was also significantly increased (239 +/- 80 to 483 +/- 144 ms2) by digoxin therapy.
Conclusions: These results indicate 1) that long-term therapy with digoxin acts to ameliorate the autonomic dysfunction of patients with heart failure, and 2) that the short-term neurohormonal effects of digoxin are sustained during prolonged treatment with the drug.