OBJECTIVE: To test the hypothesis that short term application of transdermal scopolamine increases heart rate variability (HRV) and restores sympathovagal balance in patients with stable congestive heart failure (CHF). DESIGN: A double blind placebo controlled crossover study. SETTING: Tertiary referral centre. PATIENTS: Twelve patients (mean age 66 (10)) with New York Heart Association class II-IV CHF. All patients had coronary artery disease (mean left ventricular ejection fraction 26.7 (8.9) %). INTERVENTION: Patients were randomly assigned to receive either a placebo skin patch or a transdermal scopolamine patch (Transderm, 0.05 mg/h). Patches remained in place for 48 hours with a 24 hour washout period before crossover. OUTCOME MEASURES: HRV was derived from (a) 24 hour time domain indices (mean RR interval, standard deviation of interbeat interval, and the baseline width of the frequency distribution of RR intervals) and (b) short data set (2.2 mm) power spectral measurements using autoregressive modelling. Autospectral measures were performed in both resting supine and standing (orthostatic) states. The 24 hour Holter record was obtained during the second day of patch application. RESULTS: There was a small but significant (P < 0.05) increase in all time domain HRV variables with scopolamine. There was a paradoxical fall in low frequency (LF) spectral power induced by orthostasis during baseline (-30%) and placebo (-34%) states. Conversely, scopolamine was associated with a 14% increase in LF power during orthostatic stress. Scopolamine thus significantly reduced the orthostatic fall in LF (P < 0.01) compared with either baseline or placebo values. No difference in circadian rhythm was seen between the scopolamine and placebo treatment periods. However, the abrupt fall in the high frequency (vagal) power during the early morning sleep-wake hours was reduced by scopolamine. Scopolamine was also associated with a significant rightward shift in the resting LF central frequency consistent with a vagomimetic effect. CONCLUSION: Patients with chronic stable CHF showed a paradoxical fall in the low frequency (sympathetic) power during orthostatic stress. Transdermal scopolamine applied over a 48 hour period partially restored the balance between sympathetic tone and vagal activity in CHF patients and maintained this balance during orthostatic stress.