1. The heart and the oesophagus have similar sensory pathways, and sensations originating from the oesophagus are often difficult to differentiate from those of cardiac origin. We hypothesized that oesophageal sensory stimuli could alter neurocardiac function through autonomic reflexes elicited by these oesophageal stimuli. In the present study, we examined the neurocardiac response to oesophageal stimulation and the effects of electrical and mechanical oesophageal stimulation on the power spectrum of beat-to-beat heart rate variability in male volunteers.
2. In 14 healthy volunteers, beat-to-beat heart rate variability was compared at rest and during oesophageal stimulation, using either electrical (200 μs, 16 mA, 0.2 Hz) or mechanical (0.5 s, 14 ml, 0.2 Hz) stimuli. The power spectrum of beat-to-beat heart rate variability was obtained and its low- and high-frequency components were determined.
3. Distal oesophageal stimulation decreased heart rate slightly (both electrical and mechanical) (P < 0.005), and markedly altered heart rate variability (P < 0.001). Both electrical and mechanical oesophageal stimulation increased the absolute and normalized area of the high-frequency band within the power spectrum (P < 0.001), while simultaneously decreasing the low-frequency power (P < 0.005).
4. In humans, oesophageal stimulation, whether electrical or mechanical, appears to amplify respiratory-driven cardiac vagoafferent modulation while decreasing sympathetic modulation. The technique provides access to vagoafferent fibres and thus may yield useful information on the autonomic effects of visceral or oesophageal sensory stimulation.