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Physiol Rep. 2018 Mar;6(6):e13620. doi: 10.14814/phy2.13620.

Impaired autonomic function in adolescents born preterm.

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Department of Pediatrics, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.
Department of Kinesiology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.
Department of Orthopedics & Rehabilitation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.
Department of Medicine, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.
Department of Biostatistics and Medical Informatics, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.


Preterm birth temporarily disrupts autonomic nervous system (ANS) development, and the long-term impacts of disrupted fetal development are unclear in children. Abnormal cardiac ANS function is associated with worse health outcomes, and has been identified as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. We used heart rate variability (HRV) in the time domain (standard deviation of RR intervals, SDRR; and root means squared of successive differences, RMSSD) and frequency domain (high frequency, HF; and low frequency, LF) at rest, as well as heart rate recovery (HRR) following maximal exercise, to assess autonomic function in adolescent children born preterm. Adolescents born preterm (less than 36 weeks gestation at birth) in 2003 and 2004 and healthy age-matched full-term controls participated. Wilcoxon Rank Sum tests were used to compare variables between control and preterm groups. Twenty-one adolescents born preterm and 20 term-born controls enrolled in the study. Preterm-born subjects had lower time-domain HRV, including SDRR (69.1 ± 33.8 vs. 110.1 ± 33.0 msec, respectively, P = 0.008) and RMSSD (58.8 ± 38.2 vs. 101.5 ± 36.2 msec, respectively, P = 0.012), with higher LF variability in preterm subjects. HRR after maximal exercise was slower in preterm-born subjects at 1 min (30 ± 12 vs. 39 ± 9 bpm, respectively, P = 0.013) and 2 min (52 ± 10 vs. 60 ± 10 bpm, respectively, P = 0.016). This study is the first report of autonomic dysfunction in adolescents born premature. Given prior association of impaired HRV with adult cardiovascular disease, additional investigations into the mechanisms of autonomic dysfunction in this population are warranted.


Autonomic function; exercise physiology; heart rate recovery; heart rate variability

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