Heart rate variation in deep breathing, a sensitive non-invasive measure of cardiac parasympathetic activity, was measured in 63 patients with coronary artery disease, in 22 patients with atypical chest pain, and in 20 healthy symptom free volunteers. There was significantly less heart rate variation in deep breathing in the patients with coronary artery disease than in the healthy subjects. Twenty patients (32%) with coronary artery disease had lower than normal variation in heart rate. The patients with chest pain showed an intermediate heart rate response to deep breathing. Sinus arrhythmia in the patients with coronary artery disease was not related to the functional class, medication, number or location of narrowed vessels, or to the left ventricular ejection fraction, and end diastolic pressure. These results suggest that impairment of the parasympathetic nervous function is common in coronary artery disease.