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Time and frequency domain analysis of heart rate variability in cattle affected by bovine spongiform encephalopathy

Timm Konold*, Gemma E Bone and Marion M Simmons

Author Affiliations

Pathology & Host Susceptibility, Neuropathology, Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency Weybridge, New Haw, Addlestone, KT15 3NB, UK

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BMC Research Notes 2011, 4:259  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-4-259

Published: 25 July 2011



Heart rate variability (HRV) analysis is a method to assess the function of the autonomic nervous system. Brainstem nuclei that influence HRV are affected by vacuolar changes and accumulation of disease-associated prion protein (PrPd) in bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) resulting in clinical signs suggestive of an increased parasympathetic tone. It was hypothesised that BSE in cattle causes changes in the autonomic nervous system; this was tested by comparing HRV indices derived from 1048 electrocardiograms, which were recorded from 51 naturally or experimentally infected cattle with BSE confirmed by postmortem tests, 321 clinical suspect cases or cattle inoculated with potentially infectious tissue without disease confirmation and 78 BSE-free control cattle.


Statistically significant differences were found for low or high frequency power, their normalised values and ratio when the last recording prior to cull or repeated recordings were compared but only between male and female cattle of the three groups and not between groups of the same gender, even though BSE cases of each gender appeared to be more nervous during the recording. The same findings were made for heart rate, deviation from the mean RR interval and vasovagal tonus index when repeated recordings were compared. BSE cases with severe vacuolar changes in the parasympathetic nucleus of the vagus nerve had a significantly lower low:high frequency power ratio but not a lower heart rate than BSE cases with mild vacuolation, whereas severity of vacuolar changes in the solitary tract nucleus or intensity of PrPd accumulation in both nuclei did not appear to have any affect on either index. Abnormalities in the electrocardiogram were detected in 3% of the recordings irrespective of the BSE status; sinus arrhythmia was present in 93% of the remaining recordings.


HRV analysis was not useful to distinguish BSE-positive from BSE-negative cattle grouped by gender, and HRV indices appeared to be mainly influenced by gender. There is agreement with earlier studies that vacuolar changes in the brainstem may be associated with an increased parasympathetic tone in BSE and that abnormalities in an electrocardiogram can be detected in cattle without evidence of heart disease.