Putting back respiration into respiratory sinus arrhythmia or high-frequency heart rate variability: Implications for interpretation, respiratory rhythmicity, and health

Author: Thomas Ritz1
1 Department of Psychology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX, USA. Electronic address: tritz@smu.edu.
Conference/Journal: Biol Psychol
Date published: 2023 Dec 11
Other: Pages: 108728 , Special Notes: doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2023.108728. , Word Count: 272

Research on respiratory sinus arrhythmia, or high-frequency heart rate variability (its frequency-domain equivalent), has been popular in psychology and the behavioral sciences for some time. It is typically interpreted as an indicator of cardiac vagal activity. However, as research has shown for decades, the respiratory pattern can influence the amplitude of these noninvasive measures substantially, without necessarily reflecting changes in tonic cardiac vagal activity. Although changes in respiration are systematically associated with experiential and behavioral states, this potential confounder in the interpretation of RSA, or HF-HRV, is rarely considered. Interpretations of within-individual changes in these parameters are therefore only conclusive if undertaken relative to the breathing pattern. The interpretation of absolute levels of these parameters between individuals is additionally burdened with the problem of residual inspiratory cardiac vagal activity in humans. Furthermore, multiple demographic, anthropometric, life-style, health, and medication variables can act as relevant third variables that might explain associations of RSA or HF-HRV with experiential and behavioral variables. Because vagal activity measured by these parameters only represents the portion of cardiac vagal outflow that is modulated by the respiratory rhythm, alternative interpretations beyond cardiac vagal activity should be considered. Accumulating research shows that activity of multiple populations of neurons in the brain and the periphery, and with that organ activity and function, are modulated rhythmically by respiratory activity. Thus, observable health benefits ascribed to the cardiac vagal system through RSA or HF-HRV may actually reflect beneficial effects of respiratory modulation. Respiratory rhythmicity may ultimately provide the mechanism that integrates central, autonomic, and visceral activities.

Keywords: Respiratory sinus arrhythmia; heart rate variability; neurovisceral integration; respiration; respiratory rhythm; vagus.

PMID: 38092221 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2023.108728