Analysis of heart rate variability (HRV) provides a non-invasive index of autonomic nervous system activity. HRV has been shown to be reduced in heart failure. Preliminary data indicate that beta blockers improve clinical status in patients with heart failure, but HRV improvement remains to be demonstrated. Fifty-four patients from the randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled Cardiac Insufficiency Bisoprolol Study were included in the HRV study. The bisoprolol daily dose was 5 mg once daily. We assessed HRV during 24-hour Holter recordings before randomization and after 2 months of treatment. HRV as measured in the time domain by root-mean-square successive differences (rMSSD), the percentage of adjacent RR differences >50 ms (pNN50), and the SD of RR intervals (SDNN), and in the frequency domain by high-frequency (0.16 to 0.40 Hz) and low-frequency (0.04 to 0.15 Hz) power. Most patients were in New York Heart Association functional class III. The mean left ventricular ejection fraction was 27 +/- 7%, and heart failure was idiopathic or ischemic. After 2 months, the patients receiving bisoprolol had a reduced mean heart rate compared with that in placebo patients (p=0.0004). Bisoprolol increased 24-hour rMSSD (p=0.04) and 24-hour pNN50 (p=0.04), daytime SDNN (p=0.05), and daytime high-frequency power (p=0.03) power. Bisoprolol induced a significant increase in HRV parameters related to parasympathetic activity in heart failure. Increased vagal tone may contribute to the protective effect of beta blockers and may have prognostic implications.