Hidden Signals: History and Relevance of HRV

Kristen Sparrow • November 26, 2017

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This is a handy and thorough overview of HRV history and applications.  Some useful tables and basics on the various parameters used in HRV (time, frequency and non-linear measures.) I’ve pasted some of the text here for my own reference and for readers.

Already more than one century ago scientists observed and proposed associations between imbalances of the ANS and (pathological) mental states. Notions included that dysfunctional mental states might be associated with excessive vagal outflow (), with imbalances between the sympathetic and parasympathetic system (), or with excessive sympathetic outflow (). Already Lacey and Lacey reported personality traits associated with greater HRV (). Early work of Porges and Raskin showed mental state associations with HRV (). This notion was later extended and elaborated by Porges (Polyvagal Theory) and Thayer (Neurovisceral Integration Model) ().

Today, HRV has been used in more than 2,000 clinical trials and has been mentioned in more than 14,000 articles (). It is used as an algorithm in sports watches and frequently appears in new Apps in electronic devices, mostly for health or training purposes (, ). The clinical use, however, is still invariant…

Based on the mentioned models and concepts above, HRV is also increasingly used in psychological research. The general hypothesis there is that higher levels of HRV parameters associated with activity in the parasympathetic system are also associated with better adaptivity to perturbations and better stress response. A recent meta-analysis confirmed this hypothesis, showing significant associations, although the absolute differences were small. Interestingly not only parasympathetic but also higher general HRV parameters were related to greater adaptivity (). As an example, HRV has been used as a method in anxiety research. According to the neurovisceral model, anxiety disorders can be characterized by a breakdown of the inhibitory processes of the central autonomic network ().

Table 1

pNN50 and rMSSD can be used both in short-term and long-term measurements. NN50 is the number of pairs of successive NNs that differ by more than 50 ms, pNN50, the proportion of NN50 divided by total number of NNs over (normally) a 24h-recording {() #1505} and is often interpreted as a proxy for cardiac parasympathetic activity {() #2345}. rMSSD stands for the square root of the mean squared differences of successive NN intervals (, ).

The frequency domain (power spectral density) analysis in humans was introduced by Axelrod et al. (). It describes the periodic oscillations in different frequencies of the heart rate signal, and quantifies the amount of different frequency bands (). During preprocessing, the RR intervals have to be resampled to transform it to a real time-series, usually at 4 Hz to capture oscillations up to 2 Hz according to the Nyquist theorem {() #2349}. Most frequently, frequency domain is calculated non-parametrically with the fast Fourier transformation (FFT). Parametric methods in the discrete Fourier transformation are more complex and dependent on the used model. The investigated time-series has to be stationary; therefore, it cannot be applicated in patients with fast changing heart rates under the measurement period. Under certain circumstances FFT fails to find structures which can be found with, e.g., wavelet analysis ()….

Usual parameters include TP, VLF (very low frequency, <0.003–0.04 Hz), LF (low-frequency power, 0.04–0.15 Hz), HF (high frequency power, 0.15–0.4 Hz). A frequently used ratio is LF/HF. Frequency domain parameters can be applicated both in short- and long-term measurements, but not ULF (ultra low frequency, <0.003 Hz), which only can be used in Holter monitoring.

HF is frequently interpreted as a marker of the PNS and is influenced by the respiratory rate (). It is to a certain degree the same as the RSA () and correlates with it (). Parasympathetic regulation of the heart has a fast response after about 0.5 s and returns to baseline within 1 s ().

LF is modulated both by the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic system. A high LF power is often explained as result of high sympathetic activity (mental, physical stress, sympathomimetic pharmacologic agents). Sympathetic input leads to changes in heart rate, however, more slowly as after parasympathetic input, with a peak after about 4 s and return to baseline after about 20 s (). The LF/HF ratio mirrors the general sympathetic/parasympathetic balance and returns usually in rest a value between 1 and 2. VLF is a general proxy for physical activity and might mirror also sympathetic activity, but the causality is debated (). Increased inflammatory parameters like CRP, Il-6, and WBC are correlated with low VLF (). Some reference values for frequency domain parameters are presented in Table Table44….

Therefore, as alternative a different algorithm, termed “sample entropy” (SampEn) has been introduced (). Similarly, it calculates the probability of identifying specific patterns in a short time-series and is defined as the negative natural logarithm of an estimate for predictability in finding specific matches in a short time-series {() #1566}. To set the exactness of pattern recognition, the length (m) of the subseries and the tolerance (r) for the patterns has to be predefined. It returns results between 0 and around 2, 0 represents, e.g., a sinus curve and a result near 2 complete chaos. SampEn needs far fewer data points compared to ApEN, and it can be applicated in time-series between 200 to 250 data points (, ). Several other entropy algorithms have been proposed, like Lempel Ziv entropy (), Multiscale entropy (), fuzzy entropy (), or Renyi entropy (). All have been used in clinical studies, but their significance is still unclear.