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Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology


For decades the role of autonomic regulation and the baroreflex in the generation of the respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) - modulation of heart rate by the frequency of breathing - has been under dispute. We hypothesized that by using autonomic blockers we can reveal which oscillations and their interactions are suppressed, elucidating their involvement in RSA as well as in cardiovascular regulation more generally. R-R intervals, end tidal CO2, finger arterial pressure, and muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA) were measured simultaneously in 7 subjects during saline, atropine and propranolol infusion. The measurements were repeated during spontaneous and fixed-frequency breathing, and apnea. The power spectra, phase coherence and couplings were calculated to characterise the variability and interactions within the cardiovascular system. Atropine reduced R-R interval variability (p < 0.05) in all three breathing conditions, reduced MSNA power during apnea and removed much of the significant coherence and couplings. Propranolol had smaller effect on the power of oscillations and did not change the number of significant interactions. Most notably, atropine reduced R-R interval power in the 0.145–0.6 Hz interval during apnea, which supports the hypothesis that the RSA is modulated by a mechanism other than the baroreflex. Atropine also reduced or made negative the phase shift between the systolic and diastolic pressure, indicating the cessation of baroreflex-dependent blood pressure variability. This result suggests that coherent respiratory oscillations in the blood pressure can be used for the non-invasive assessment of autonomic regulation.

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© 2022 Clemson, Hoag, Cooke, Eckberg and Stefanovska. Publisher’s version of record:

Publication Title

Frontiers in Network Physiology

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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