BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES--Autonomic dysfunction seems to be involved in the progression and prognosis of severe congestive heart failure. Parasympathetic activity can still be abnormal 4-8 weeks after haemodynamic improvement by heart transplantation. To identify patients in heart failure with a more pronounced neural derangement and to analyse the changes in sympathetic and parasympathetic activity soon after heart transplantation, spectral indices of heart rate variability were assessed in 30 patients in severe heart failure and in 13 patients after heart transplantation; a group of 15 age-matched subjects served as controls. METHODS AND RESULTS--Heart rate variability was assessed by standard electrocardiography (ECG) in patients in heart failure and by oesophageal ECG in patients after heart transplantation. Compared with controls, the mean RR interval and total power were reduced in heart failure. The 30 patients showed two different patterns of heart rate variability: in 14 no power was detected in the low frequency band (0.03-0.15 Hz) (LF) and total power was mainly concentrated in the high frequency band (0.15-0.45 Hz) (HF), whereas in the remaining 16 patients power in the LF band was increased and power in HF band was reduced compared with the controls. Patients with undetectable LF had a lower mean RR interval and total power (745(25) v 864(36) ms, p < 0.05; 118(16) v 902(202) ms2, p < 0.001), higher concentration of plasma noradrenaline (635(75) v 329(54) pg/ml, p < 0.05), and worse clinical status and prognosis (4 deaths v no deaths at 6 month follow up) than patients with a dominant LF band. In the post-transplant patients both the mean PP interval of the remnant atrium and total power resembled results in the patients with heart failure; in 7 of the 13 post-transplant patients no power was detectable in the LF band: when both HF and LF power were present the results resembled those in the 16 patients in heart failure. CONCLUSIONS--These data suggest that in more advanced stages of congestive heart failure, power spectral analysis of heart rate variability allows identification of a subgroup of patients with higher sympathetic activation and poorer clinical status who are at major risk of adverse events. In the short term after cardiac transplantation the spectral profile of the rhythm variability of the remnant atrium was not improved, suggesting that parasympathetic withdrawal and sympathetic hyperactivity persist, despite the restoration of ventricular function.