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Time-frequency methods and voluntary ramped-frequency breathing: a powerful combination for exploration of human neurophysiological mechanisms

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article


Journal publication date15/12/2013
JournalJournal of Applied Physiology
Number of pages16
Original languageEnglish


We experimentally altered the timing of respiratory motoneuron activity as a means to modulate and better understand otherwise hidden human central neural and hemodynamic oscillatory mechanisms. We recorded the electrocardiogram, finger photoplethysmographic arterial pressure, tidal carbon dioxide concentrations, and muscle sympathetic nerve activity in 13 healthy supine young men who gradually increased or decreased their breathing frequencies between 0.05 and 0.25 Hz over 9-min periods. We analyzed results with traditional time- and frequency-domain methods, and also with time-frequency methods (wavelet transform, wavelet phase coherence, and directional coupling). We determined statistical significance and identified frequency boundaries by comparing measurements with randomly generated surrogates. Our results support several major conclusions. First, respiration causally modulates both sympathetic (weakly) and vagal motoneuron (strongly) oscillations over a wide frequency range—one that extends well below the frequency of actual breaths. Second, breathing frequency broadly modulates vagal baroreflex gain, with peak gains registered in the low frequency range. Third, breathing frequency does not influence median levels of sympathetic or vagal activity over time. Fourth, phase relations between arterial pressure and sympathetic and vagal motoneurons are unaffected by breathing, and are therefore likely secondary to intrinsic responsiveness of these motoneurons to other synaptic inputs. Finally, breathing frequency does not affect phase coherence between diastolic pressure and muscle sympathetic oscillations, but it augments phase coherence between systolic pressure and R-R interval oscillations over a limited portion of the usual breathing frequency range. These results refine understanding of autonomic oscillatory processes and those physiological mechanisms known as the human respiratory gate.