Cardiac Autonomic Function During Sleep: Effects of Alcohol Dependence and Evidence of Partial Recovery with Abstinence

SRI Authors: Massimiliano de Zambotti, Fiona C Baker


de Zambotti, M., Willoughby, A. R., Baker, F. C., Sugarbaker, D. S., & Colrain, I. M. (2015). Cardiac autonomic function during sleep: Effects of alcohol dependence and evidence of partial recovery with abstinence. Alcohol, 49(4), 409-415. doi: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2014.07.023


Chronic alcoholism is associated with the development of cardiac and peripheral autonomic nervous system (ANS) pathology. The aim of the present study was to evaluate the extent to which recovery in ANS function could be demonstrated over the first 4 months of abstinence. Fifteen alcoholics (7 women) were studied on three occasions: within a month of detoxification, at approximately 2 months post-detox, and at 4 months post-detox. Thirteen control subjects (6 women) were also studied on three occasions with inter-study intervals matching those of the alcoholics. Six alcoholics relapsed, 48.7 ± 27.9 days following the initial PSG session. ANS function was assessed in the first part of stable non-rapid eye movement sleep. Frequency-domain power spectral analysis of heart rate variability (HRV) produced variables including: heart rate (HR), total power (TP; an index representing total HR variability), High Frequency power (HFa; an index reflecting cardiac vagal modulation), HF proportion of total power (HFpropsympathovagal balance), and HF peak frequency (HFpf; an index reflecting respiration rate). Overall, high total and high frequency variability and low sympathovagal balance and myocardial contractility are considered as desired conditions to promote cardiovascular health. At initial assessment, alcoholics had a higher HR (p < 0.001) and respiratory rate (p < 0.01), and lower vagal activity (HFa; p < 0.01) than controls. Alcoholics showed evidence of recovery in HR (p = 0.039) and HFa (p = 0.031) with 4 months of abstinence. Alcoholics with higher TP at the initial visit showed a greater improvement in TP from the initial to the 4 month follow-up session (r = 0.75, p < 0.05). Alcoholics showed substantial recovery in HR and vagal modulation of HRV with 4 months of abstinence, with evidence that the extent of recovery in HRV may be partially determined by the extent of alcohol dependence-related insult to the cardiac ANS system. These data support other studies showing recovery in a number of ANS, central nervous system, and behavioral domains with abstinence, even in those with long-term dependence.

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