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Open Access Research article

Fine structure of the low-frequency spectra of heart rate and blood pressure

Tom A Kuusela1*, Timo J Kaila23 and Mika Kähönen4

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Physics, University of Turku, 20014 Turku, Finland

2 Department of Clinical Pharmacology, Tampere University Hospital, 33521 Tampere, Finland

3 Tampere University, 33014 Tampere, Finland

4 Department of Clinical Physiology, Tampere University Hospital, 33521 Tampere, Finland

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BMC Physiology 2003, 3:11  doi:10.1186/1472-6793-3-11

Published: 13 October 2003



The aim of this study was to explore the principal frequency components of the heart rate and blood pressure variability in the low frequency (LF) and very low frequency (VLF) band. The spectral composition of the R–R interval (RRI) and systolic arterial blood pressure (SAP) in the frequency range below 0.15 Hz were carefully analyzed using three different spectral methods: Fast Fourier transform (FFT), Wigner-Ville distribution (WVD), and autoregression (AR). All spectral methods were used to create time–frequency plots to uncover the principal spectral components that are least dependent on time. The accurate frequencies of these components were calculated from the pole decomposition of the AR spectral density after determining the optimal model order – the most crucial factor when using this method – with the help of FFT and WVD methods.


Spectral analysis of the RRI and SAP of 12 healthy subjects revealed that there are always at least three spectral components below 0.15 Hz. The three principal frequency components are 0.026 ± 0.003 (mean ± SD) Hz, 0.076 ± 0.012 Hz, and 0.117 ± 0.016 Hz. These principal components vary only slightly over time. FFT-based coherence and phase-function analysis suggests that the second and third components are related to the baroreflex control of blood pressure, since the phase difference between SAP and RRI was negative and almost constant, whereas the origin of the first component is different since no clear SAP–RRI phase relationship was found.


The above data indicate that spontaneous fluctuations in heart rate and blood pressure within the standard low-frequency range of 0.04–0.15 Hz typically occur at two frequency components rather than only at one as widely believed, and these components are not harmonically related. This new observation in humans can help explain divergent results in the literature concerning spontaneous low-frequency oscillations. It also raises methodological and computational questions regarding the usability and validity of the low-frequency spectral band when estimating sympathetic activity and baroreflex gain.