Cardiology Journal 5 2013-1


Baroreceptor sensitivity and diabetes mellitus

Olumide Olatubosun Rowaiye1, Ewa Anita Jankowska2, 3, Beata Ponikowska1

1Department of Physiology, Wroclaw Medical University, Wroclaw, Poland
2Department of Heart Diseases, Wroclaw Medical University, Wroclaw, Poland
3Center for Heart Diseases, Military Hospital, Wroclaw, Poland

Address for correspondence: Olumide O. Rowaiye, MD, Department of Physiology, Wroclaw Medical University,
ul. T. Chałubińskiego 10, 50–368 Wrocław, Poland, tel: +48 71 784 00 91, fax: +48 71 784 00 92,
Received: 13.09.2012 Accepted: 25.03.2013


Diabetes mellitus (DM) is a disease of increasing incidence and prevalence. Arterial baroreceptors are stretch-sensitive receptors, which in a reflex manner are involved in the homeostatic control of arterial blood pressure. Diabetic subjects have depressed baroreflex sensitivity (BRS), although the exact pathomechanisms are unclear. In this review, we discuss the features, clinical and prognostic implications of reduced BRS for diabetic patients and the potential involvement of cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy and atherosclerosis. Finally, we demonstrate evidence on interventions (e.g. pioglitazone, alpha-lipoic acid, leptin, fluvastatin, physical training etc.) which could improve BRS and ameliorate cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction in diabetic patients. (Cardiol J 2013; 20, 5: 453–463)

Key words: arterial baroreceptors, autonomic dysfunction, baroreflex sensitivity, cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy, diabetes mellitus


Diabetes mellitus (DM) is a metabolic disease with increasing incidence and prevalence. In DM, there is an alteration in the cardiovascular reflex response and one of the key elements of this alteration is the impaired response from arterial baroreceptors. The deterioration in the baroreflex function in diabetic patients, its features, clinical and prognostic consequences and the potential for its reversal are discussed in this article.

However, the following important keywords need to be defined in order to afford the reader a better understanding of the concepts presented in this article.

Baroreflex sensitivity (BRS). An autonomic assessment parameter which provides insight on the autonomic regulation of cardiovascular function. BRS measures the reflex-mediated change in R-R interval produced by a change in the systolic blood pressure (BP).

Autonomic dysfunction. A malfunction or disease of the autonomic nervous system. DM is a common cause of autonomic dysfunction. Impaired BRS is indicative of autonomic dysfunction.

Cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy (CAN). A form of diabetic autonomic neuropathy (DAN) characterized by cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction resulting from damage to the autonomic nerve fibers innervating the heart and blood vessels. Impaired BRS is an element of CAN.

Physiology of arterial baroreceptors

The reflex response from baroreceptors (baroreflex) is one of the body’s mechanisms for the homeostatic control of arterial BP and the maintenance of the optimal perfusion of critical organs such as the brain, heart, etc. Arterial baroreceptors are stretch-sensitive receptors found in the arterial walls (localized mainly in the carotid sinus of the carotid arteries and in the walls of the aortic arch) [1].

Arterial baroreceptors are innervated and remain under the reflex neural control. Afferent fibers from the carotid and aortic baroreceptors pass via the glossopharyngeal and the vagal nerves into the nucleus tractus solitarius in the medullary area of the brainstem [1, 2]. The efferent fibers pass via the parasympathetic and sympathetic arms of the autonomic nervous system to the heart and blood vessels [2], as the baroreceptor reflex consists of two main components namely the cardiac and the vascular components [2, 3]. The baroreflex system for the control of arterial pressure is based on a negative feedback mechanism and is the most rapid of all the body’s BP control mechanisms [1].

An increase in systolic BP (SBP) stretches the arterial baroreceptors and they respond by increasing their rate of action potential generation which is then transmitted to the brain stem. Appropriate compensatory responses are initiated by the cardiovascular control center in the brainstem in order to decrease SBP. This is achieved via an increase in the vagal (parasympathetic) outflow and a decrease in the sympathetic outflow to the heart and blood vessels. The resultant effect is a decrease in heart rate (bradycardia), cardiac contractility, stroke volume, peripheral vascular resistance and venous return [1, 4].

Methods of assessing baroreflex function in humans

The functional integrity of arterial baroreceptors can be assessed using various BRS assessments. The rationale behind the BRS testing is to see how a spontaneous or provoked (using either vasoactive drugs or certain maneuvers) change in SBP brings about a reflex-mediated change in RR intervals [4–6].

In the vasoactive drug (pharmacological) method, the drug that has been traditionally used for the BRS assessment is the alpha-adrenergic agonist phenylephrine, and the test is designated as a phenylephrine test (BRS-Phe). Injecting phenylephrine (a vasoconstrictor) brings about an increase in SBP, which induces a reflex-mediated change in RR intervals [4, 5, 7]. As there is a linear association between an increase in SBP and the subsequent increase in RR intervals, the BRS-Phe is expressed as a slope of the regression line linking changes in SBP and RR intervals [4, 5]. Vasodilators like sodium nitroprusside or nitroglycerin can also be used to assess BRS [4, 7]. However, the BRS-Phe remains the gold standard for BRS evaluation.

The Valsalva maneuver is done by either expiring against a closed glottis [4] or blowing (exhaling) continuously into a closed system for about 12 s at a pressure of at least 40 mm Hg [5]. The BRS can then be estimated from the linear regression analysis of the SBP and the RR interval changes during the phase IV of this maneuver (phase IV is characterized by BP overshoot due to the effects of prevailing vasoconstriction and the normalization of cardiac output and venous return) [4].

The neck chamber method involves the application of positive or negative pneumatic pressure to the neck region in order to specifically stimulate or deactivate the carotid baroreceptors in that region [3, 4]. The carotid BRS can then be obtained from the slope of the regression of the RR intervals on the neck pressure values [4].

In the controlled breathing method (BRS-CtrBr), the examined subject performs regular inspirations and expirations for a certain period of time (e.g. 3–5 min) at a constant rate of e.g. 6 breaths per minute (0.1 Hz) [7, 8]. The ratio of the amplitude of RR intervals oscillations to the amplitude of SBP oscillations is another measure of BRS [7].

BRS can also be assessed using continuous recording and relating BP and RR intervals during different maneuvers that involve change in body position, e.g. orthostasis (where the examined subject stands upright throughout the test period [7]); the squatting test (here, the examined subject stands for 3 min at the beginning of the test, then squats down for 1 min, and finally stands again for another 1 min [9, 10]); and the tilt-table method (where both the head-up tilting and downward tilting techniques can be used [7]).

In the microneurography method, the slope of the relationship between muscle sympathetic nerve activity and diastolic BP is used to assess the BRS [7].

Spontaneous BRS can be obtained using the sequence and spectral analysis methods [4–6]. The sequence method (BRS-Seq) defines BRS as the slope of the linear regression of three or more consecutive beats (in which progressive rise/fall in SBP are accompanied by progressive lengthening/shortening of RR intervals) [4, 6]. In the spectral analysis method, BRS assessment is based on the relationship (in terms of gain, phase and coherence) between SBP and RR intervals in the low frequency and high frequency bands [4–6].

In healthy subjects, numerous factors influence BRS, such as: age, gender, genetic factors, baseline heart rate, baseline BP, fatness and body weight, hormone status, arterial stiffness, some drugs and physical activity [11–15].

BRS also increases in the presence of parasympathetic dominance and decreases in the presence of sympathetic dominance [5].

Diabetes mellitus, diabetic autonomic neuropathy, and baroreflex impairment

Impairment in the baroreflex function (i.e. reduced BRS) has been demonstrated in subjects with DM, both in experimental models using streptozotocin (STZ)-induced diabetic rats [16–18] and in diabetic patients [19–21]. However, some authors did not confirm such observations [22–25].

Diabetic patients quite commonly develop the so-called diabetic autonomic neuropathy (DAN). Its exact origin remains unknown, however, some authors consider this pathology as metabolic and ischemic nerve injuries due to chronic hyperglycemia [26]. Hyperglycemia-induced changes cause a decrease in endoneurial circulation (reduced blood flow to the nerves) resulting in ischemia and hypoxia [26, 27]. The attendant effect of endoneurial hypoxia is impaired axonal transport [26, 27] and finally axonal atrophy [26]. Furthermore, hyperglycemia causes an activation of the polyol pathway with the enzyme aldose reductase serving as a catalyst; this leads to the accumulation of sorbitol and fructose in the nerves thereby resulting in intracellular deficiency of myoinositol in the nerve tissues and changes in the structural nerve proteins [26, 27]. Hyperglycemia also causes oxidative stress with increased production of oxygen free radicals [26–28] which results in tissue damage [27]. In some patients, immunological and inflammatory processes can play a role in the development of neuropathy [27, 28]. Other factors leading to neuronal damage in diabetic neuropathy include decrease in nerve growth factors, and disorders in the metabolism of essential fatty acids [27, 28].

Although DAN can affect nerves innervating most body organs, its effects on the structures innervating the cardiovascular system seem to be prominent and clinically relevant [6, 27, 28]. In CAN, there occurs cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction resulting from injury to the autonomic nerve fibers innervating the cardiovascular system. The clinical manifestations of CAN [6, 27–29] include: exercise intolerance, resting tachycardia, orthostatic hypotension, silent (painless) myocardial ischemia, intra-/perioperative cardiovascular lability, orthostatic tachycardia and bradycardia syndromes, increased mortality risk.

CAN seems to be associated with an increased risk for major cardiovascular events such as myo­cardial infarction (MI) and stroke [30–32]. Methods used in the diagnosis and evaluation of CAN include:

  • heart rate variability (HRV) [6];
  • the standardized (conventional) battery of autonomic function tests proposed by Ewing et al. [33] (such as heart rate [HR] response to Valsalva manuever, HR response to deep breathing, HR response to orthostasis, BP response to orthostasis, BP response to sustained handgrip);
  • pontaneous BRS [6];
  • ardiac radionuclide imaging [6].

Both HRV [5, 6, 27, 28] and BRS [19, 20] are reduced in CAN patients. HRV as an assessment tool is one of the earliest indicators of CAN [5, 6, 27, 28]; its drawback however lies in the fact that its parameters are more difficult to interpret in comparison to other noninvasive autonomic tests mentioned above [5]. Cardiac radionuclide imaging as an assessment tool is not feasible for quick and routine evaluation of patients in the outpatient setting. Spontaneous BRS is one of the most promising but perhaps less-commonly-used tools for assessing cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction in diabetic patients. Comparative studies involving the use of both spontaneous BRS and conventional autonomic function tests in the diagnosis of CAN have demonstrated the following:

  • spontaneous BRS was capable of detecting autonomic dysfunction earlier than conventional autonomic function tests [19, 34];
  • spontaneous BRS showed greater sensitivity and specificity in the detection of autonomic dysfunction than conventional autonomic function tests [20, 35].

Pathophysiological theories of diminished BRS in diabetes mellitus

Although the exact pathomechanisms leading to reduced BRS in DM remain unclear, some evidence has linked the reduced BRS to diabetes-induced changes in the autonomic nervous system and its regulation of cardiovascular functions [11, 33, 36–40]. These changes which can occur at both the central and peripheral (afferent and efferent) levels of the baroreflex circuit (as shown in Fig. 1 and Table 1) lead to autonomic dysfunction (as indicated by a diminished BRS).


Figure 1. Impairments occurring at the different levels of the baroreflex circuit in diabetic patients.

Table 1. Diabetes-induced changes in the baroreflex circuit associated with diminished baroreflex sensitivity (BRS).

Level of baroreflex circuit

Author and reference

Specific location of impairment associated with diminished BRS

Brief description of impairment associated with diminished BRS

Arterial baroreceptors

Gianaros et al. [43]

Human carotid bulb (abundant in baroreceptors)

Increased IMT (a sign of subclinical atherosclerosis) associated withBRS

Afferent pathways

Clarke et al. [48]

Carotid sinus nerve (a branch of the glossopharyngeal) in diabetic rats

Diabetes-induced axonal and intramyelinic edema

Fazan et al. [49]

Aortic depressor nerve (an afferent branch of the vagus) in STZ-induced diabetic rats

Diabetes-induced axonal atrophy of the nerve

Li et al. [50–52]

NG in STZ-induced diabetic rats

cell excitability of the aortic baroreceptor neurons in the NG resulting from overactivation of both the angiotensin II-NADPH oxidase superoxide signal pathway and the HCN channels

Efferent pathways

Gottsäter et al. [47]

Parasympathetic efferents in type 2 DM patients with CAN

Abnormal E/I ratio indicating structural damage in parasympa­thetic efferents

Eckberg et al. [53]

Sympathetic efferents in DM patients

Abnormal sympathetic responses indicative of structural damages in the sympathetic efferent pathway

Autonomic cardiovascular control centers in the brainstem

Chen et al. [39]

NTS in STZ-induced diabetic rats

Diabetes-induced impairment in the NTS

Yan et al. [40]

NA in diabetic mice

Diabetes-induced structural changes (reduction in the number of cardiac motor neurons in NA); diabetes induced functional changes (reduced regulation of heart rate by NA)

CAN — cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy; DM — diabetes mellitus; E/I — expiration/inspiration; HCN —hyperpolarization-activated cyclic nucleotide-gated; IMT — intima-media thickness; NA — nucleus ambiguous; NG — nodose ganglia; NTS — nucleus tractus solitarii; STZ — streptozotocin

Atherosclerosis may also contribute to BRS impairment at the baroreceptor level of the baroreflex circuit (Fig. 1, Table 1). Diabetes is a known risk factor for atherosclerosis [41]. As a matter of fact, atherosclerosis is both premature and accelerated in diabetic patients [41, 42]. Carotid atherosclerosis has been associated with depressed BRS [43–46]. In another study in type 2 DM patients, carotid atherosclerosis was linked to impaired BRS and CAN [47].

Features, clinical and prognostic consequences of diminished BRS in diabetes mellitus

Table 2. Features, clinical and prognostic consequences, prognostic determinants of diminished baroreflex sensitivity (BRS) in diabetes mellitus (DM).

Features of diminished BRS in DM

Presence of inflammatory markers in the plasma (e.g. hs-CRP)

Insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia

Essential hypertension



Elevated BNP level

More common prevalence of overt CAD, previous MI, previous CHF

Clinical and prognostic consequences of diminished BRS in DM

Increased morbidity and mortality from cardiac and non-cardiac causes

Cardiac causes: CAD, hypertension, LVD with subsequent CHF, MI

Noncardiac causes: cerebrovascular diseases (e.g. stroke), diabetic nephropathy

Prognostic determinants in DM patients with diminished BRS

Gender (female sex associated with lower BRS and worse prognosis)

Disease duration

Degree of autonomic imbalance/degree of BRS impairment and the potential for its reversal

Presence and degree of CAN

Presence of co-existing diseases especially those conditions already associated with depressed BRS such as hypertension, MI, CHF, obesity, insulin resistance, renal damage

Extent of glycemic control

Timely introduction and sustained use of appropriate BRS-improving interventions

Presence and level of certain laboratory markers e.g. microalbuminuria/proteinuria, BNP level, hypoadiponectinemia, hs-CRP, HbA1c, etc.

BNP — brain natriuretic peptide; CAD — coronary artery disease; CAN — cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy; CHF — congestive heart failure; hs-CRP — high sensitivity C-reactive protein; HbA1c — glycated hemoglobin; LVD — left ventricular dysfunction; MI — myocardial infarction

Diabetic patients who have diminished BRS are characterized by the following features (see also section a of Table 2). They demonstrate:

  • The presence of low-grade inflammation (higher levels of plasma high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) [54]: In type 2 DM patients, increased plasma levels of hsCRP have been associated with depressed cardiovascular autonomic function as indicated by diminished BRS [54]. Higher plasma levels of CRP have also been linked to insulin resistance, obesity (increased body mass index) and the development of type 2 DM, thereby suggesting the role of an underlying inflammatory process in the etiopathogenesis of diabetes [55–57].
  • Insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia: Studies show that DM patients with insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia have a reduced BRS [54, 58–60]. This association can perhaps be explained by the findings that insulin causes sympathetic nervous system activation [61, 62].
  • Essential hypertension [59]: Hypertension occurs more often in diabetic patients (especially in type 2 DM) than in nondiabetic patients with most hypertensive diabetic patients having essential hypertension [63]. Impaired BRS could contribute to the development of hypertension in DM [64]. Also both essential hypertension and type 2 DM exert a combined synergistic effect that diminishes BRS [59]. Hypertension in diabetic patients has also been attributed to the actions of hyperinsulinemia in stimulating the sympathetic nervous system [61, 65].
  • Renal damage as evidenced by microalbuminuria: In microalbuminuric type 1 DM patients, BRS was found to be depressed [66]. Studies in type 2 DM patients showed that the presence of microalbuminuria was characterized by both insulin resistance and cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction (as indicated by a diminished BRS, lower myocardial 123I-metaiodobenzylguanidine [MIBG] uptake, etc.) [58]. In addition, studies conducted in elderly type 2 DM patients showed that CAN and arterial BP were independently associated with microalbuminuria [67]. From the results of all these studies, one could hypothesize that sympathetic overactivity is perhaps the pathophysiological link between microalbuminuria and diminished BRS. Microalbuminuria is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular events such as MI, stroke, cardiovascular death and congestive heart failure (CHF) in both diabetic and non-diabetic subjects [68].
  • Hypoadiponectinemia (decreased level of plasma adiponectin): Adiponectins are proteins secreted by adipose tissues;, they circulate in great amounts in the human plasma and play a role in glucose regulation (by reducing plasma glucose and improving insulin sensitivity in both healthy and diabetic subjects) and also in the catabolism of fatty acids [69]. Hypoadiponectinemia has been associated with insulin resistant states (such as type 2 DM and obesity), hypertension and vascular atherogenesis [60, 69–71]. In studies in type 2 DM patients, hypoadiponectinemia was found to be associated with increased cardiac sympathetic activity and therefore with a diminished BRS [60].
  • The presence of neurohormonal activation (high levels of plasma B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP) [72]: BNP, a cardiac neurohormone can help identify diabetic patients at increased risk of developing left ventricular abnormalities [73]. Diminished BRS has been linked to left ventricular abnormalities (as indicated by an increased left ventricular mass index) in DM patients [74]. It has also been demonstrated that BNP can serve as a prognostic tool in DM patients, helping to identify those at increased risk of mortality from cardiovascular and other causes [75].
  • More common prevalence of overt coro­nary artery disease (as indicated by the need for revascularization) [76], pre­vious MI and previous CHF: BRS has been shown to be depressed in post-MI subjects [77–79].

Clinical and prognostic consequences of diminished BRS (see Table 2)

Diminished BRS in DM is associated with an increased risk of morbidity and mortality from cardiac and non-cardiac causes. One study using the BRS-Phe method in 184 patients (who had type 2 DM without structural heart diseases or any other severe complications) with a mean follow-up period of 4.7 years, linked diminished BRS to incidences of nonfatal MI, CHF, need for coronary revascularization, stroke and cardiovascular deaths [76]. The link between depressed BRS and renal disease (as indicated by microalbuminuria) has been discussed earlier.

In the Hoorn study [80] involving hundreds of subjects who had either DM, or hypertension or a history of cardiovascular disease with a 9 year follow-up period, it was shown that the mortality risk from cardiac and other causes was roughly twice greater in those who had DM and concomitant impairment in autonomic function (as evidenced by diminished BRS).

The prognostic determinants in DM patients with diminished BRS are outlined in Table 2. Female diabetic patients have been shown to have lower BRS and worse prognosis than their male counterparts [81]. Also, there exists a negative correlation between the disease duration and the BRS in diabetic patients [82]. Studies in DM patients have demonstrated that the degree of autonomic (sympathovagal) imbalance determines the extent of BRS impairment [82]. In addition, the extent of BRS impairment is also a determinant factor as a more depressed BRS has been associated with a poorer prognosis [81, 83]. Furthermore, as stated in an earlier section, CAN is associated with a more significantly depressed BRS [20] and therefore as can be expected a poorer prognosis. Also from a therapeutic point of view, abnormal autonomic tests (BRS inclusive) in patients with advanced CAN are less amenable to reversal by interventional modalities as will be discussed in the next section. Since BRS is reduced in CHF, hypertension, insulin resistance, obesity, and after MI as earlier stated, the co-existence of these disease conditions in a DM patient with an already depressed BRS increases the likelihood of an unfavorable prognosis. Improved glycemic control slows the progression of DM [84] and should therefore improve prognosis in such patients. BRS has also been correlated with HbA1c level [82].

Interventions improving BRS in patients with diabetes mellitus

Studies in experimental animal models and in diabetic patients have demonstrated an improved BRS following the use of pharmacological and nonpharmacological interventions (Table 3). Some other interventions (Table 4) have also been shown to be useful in ameliorating cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction in DM.

Table 3. Interventions improving baroreflexsensitivity (BRS) in diabetic subjects.

Specific intervention

Study subjects with references

Duration of use of intervention

Major mechanism(s) by which intervention improved BRS

Added advantage(s)
of intervention

(a thiazolidinedione)

Type 2 DM patients with recent MI [85]

12 weeks of

Sympathoinhibition resulting from the effects of the drug in decreasing insulin resistance

level of plasma
incidence of fatal
and nonfatal MI

ALA-an antioxidant

STZ-induced diabetic rats [86]

At least 4 weeks treatment

oxidative stress; reversal of DM-induced deficit in
c-Fos-ir neurons
in the NTS

Refer to Table 4

Leptin (an adipose tissue derived

Short-term STZ-induced diabetic rats [87]

7 days of continuous ICV infusion

Actions of leptin on the central nervous system to induce euglycemia

Normalization of
plasma glucose;
reversal of diabetes-induced hyperphagia

Fluvastatin (HMG-CoA reductase inhibitor)

STZ-induced type 1 diabetic rats [88]

30 days of

Still to be determined, but perhaps connected to the effects of statins in up-regulating the expression of nNOS in the RVLM

Antilipemic, antioxi­dative, antiatheroge­-nic and antithrom­-botic effects of the drug; improvement of impaired cardiac function

Lacidipine (a long-acting calcium channel blocker)

Hypertensive type 2 DM patients [89]

4 weeks of once daily treatment


Breathing exercise (slow, deep, controlled breaths,
6 breaths/min)

Type 1 DM patients with varying duration of disease [90]

Short (one-time maneuver during which BP and ECG were recorded

Perhaps due to improved autonomic function resulting from the maneuver

BRS in most patients studied (irrespective of disease duration), except in those with definite CAN

Physical training (exercise)

STZ-induced diabetic rats [91]

Single session of aerobic exercise

Not investigated in study

STZ-induced diabetic rats [92]

10 weeks of treadmill exercise training

baroreflex tachycardic and bradycardic responses


Type 2 DM
patients [93]

12 months (of twice weekly endurance and muscle strength training sessions)

May be connected to exercise-induced improvements in endothelial function and endoneurial circulation

glycemic control;
exercise capacity;
muscle strength

Type 2 DM patients with concomitant
and hypercholesterolemia [94]

3 months (of thrice weekly aerobic exercise)

Not investigated in study

ALA — alpha-lipoic acid; BP — blood pressure; BPV — blood pressure variability; CAN — cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy; c-Fos-ir — c-Fos-immunoreactive; DM — diabetes mellitus; ECG — electrocardiography; HMG-CoA — 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A; ICV — intracerebroventricular; MABP — mean arterial blood pressure; MI — myocardial infarction; nNOS — neuronal nitric oxide synthase; NTS — nucleus tractussolitarius; RVLM — rostral ventrolateral medulla; STZ — streptozotocin

Table 4. Interventions ameliorating cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction in diabetes mellitus (as indicated by other autonomic markers such as heart rate variability [HRV]).


Study type and/or
subjects involved
with reference(s)

Duration of use/duration of study of intervention

Effect(s) of intervention


Type 2 DM patients on oral antidiabetic drugs [95]

4 months follow-up of daily insulin administration


Type 1 DM patients with
varying degrees of CAN [96]

12 months of intensive
insulin therapy

HRV in patients with early CAN

Type 1 DM patients who
received intensive insulin therapy — DCCT study [97]

Average follow-up of
6.5 years

Intensive insulin therapy slowed down the incidence and progression of abnormal autonomic tests

14 years follow-up study
in former DCCT intensive
insulin therapy patients [98]

incidence of CAN in former intensive insulin patients for even up to 14 years after DCCT completion


Obese type 2 DM patients [99]

4 months of metformin
+ diet

cardiac sympathovagal
balance (as indicated by
HRV parameters)

Quinapril (ACEI)

DM patients with and
without DAN [100]

6 months follow-up using quinapril

total HRV and parasympathetic functions in the
early stages of DAN

Losartan (ARB) and/or Quinapril

Patients with longstanding DM (type 1 and 2) and DAN [101]

12 months of either or both drugs

cardiac function with early treatment using either of both drugs; efficacy with combination therapy

Metoprolol (β-blocker)

ACEI-treated type 1 DM patients with albuminuria [102]

6 weeks of metoprolol

autonomic function ( HRV) upon addition of metoprolol to treatment regimen


Type 1 DM patients with
HRV and detectable
hs-CRP [103]

3–4 weeks of atenolol

HRV and hs-CRP levels in atenolol-treated patients

Epalrestat (an ARI)

Type 2 DM patients with DAN [104]

3 months or more



Type 2 DM patients with CAN [105, 106]

4 months of ALA

Amelioration of CAN to
some degree

XNT (ACE2 activator)

STZ-induced diabetic rats [107]

30 days of XNT

Protected against diabetes-induced cardiovascular
autonomic dysfunction

Vitamin E (antioxidant)

Type 2 DM patients [108]

4 months

cardiac sympathovagal
balance (as indicated by
HRV parameters) on
long-term treatment

training (exercise)

DM patients with and
without CAN [109]

12 weeks (of twice weekly exercise of 30 min duration)

HRV in patients without CAN and in those with early CAN but not in those with advanced CAN; deterioration of previously improved HRV parameters following
6 weeks of exercise withdrawal

Type 2 DM patients with
and without CAN [110]

6 months (of thrice weekly exercise)

Improvement in some HRV parameters in both groups of patients with greater benefits in those with definite CAN; positive effects on lipid profile, plasma glucose and HbA1c in both groups

ACEI — angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor; ACE2— angiotensin converting enzyme 2; ALA — alpha-lipoic acid; ARB — angiotensin receptor blocker; ARI — aldose reductase inhibitor; CAN — cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy; DAN — diabetic autonomic neuropathy; DCCT — diabetes complication and control trial; DM — diabetes mellitus; HbA1c — glycated hemoglobin; hs-CRP — high sensitivity C-reactive protein; STZ — streptozotocin; XNT — 1-[(2-dimethylamino)ethylamino]-4-(hydroxymethyl)-7-[(4-methylphenyl) sulfonyl oxy]-9H-xanthene-9-one

Clinical perspective on interventional modalities

Of all the interventional modalities listed in Table 3, physical (exercise) training seems to be the most effective in improving BRS. The importance of regular and sustained exercise regimen in the management of the cardiovascular risks associated with DM cannot be overemphasized. Regular exercise has been shown to improve HRV parameters in patients with CAN (Table 4) with a deterioration of those parameters within weeks of complete exercise withdrawal [109].

Pioglitazone [85] as a BRS-improving agent particularly appears to be useful in post-MI type 2 DM patients due to its cardioprotective functions. Breathing exercise [90] also appears to be useful in improving BRS in DM patients regardless of the duration (except of course in those with marked CAN). Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) shows promise in potentially improving BRS in diabetic patients due to the results already obtained in experimental models [86]. ALA has also been shown to ameliorate CAN to some extent in type 2 DM patients [105, 106]. Statins (HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors) have proven to be a useful addition to treatment regimens in DM patients with co-existing cardiovascular risk factors [111]. Due to the beneficial effects of fluvastatin in improving BRS in STZ-induced diabetic rats [83], statins appears to be potentially useful in ameliorating baroreflex impairment in diabetic patients at both the medullary level (through their effects in up-regulating the expression of neuronal nitric oxide synthase, nNOS [83, 112]) and at the baroreceptor level (through their effects in causing atherosclerotic plaque regression [113]). Leptin [87] still appears experimental at this stage; therefore there is need for more studies in order to ascertain its efficacy in improving BRS in diabetic patients. Perhaps the interventions listed in Table 3 may be more effective in improving BRS when they are combined together rather than when used individually; this hypothesis clearly warrants further studies in order to confirm if combination therapy (or multifactorial intervention) has these synergistic effects. There is also a need to further study these interventions (Table 3) in patients with depressed BRS that is accompanied by marked DAN to see if these interventions will still remain effective in improving BRS and in ameliorating the manifestations of autonomic neuropathy.

The pharmacological agents shown in Table 4 such as angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers, beta-blockers, metformin, aldose reductase inhibitors, angiotensin converting enzyme-2 activators, etc., should also be further investigated in the context of their capability for improving BRS in diabetic patients.

Finally, there is a need for extensive follow-up studies in diabetic patients in order to determine if the gains (e.g. improved BRS and amelioration of cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction, etc.) obtained from the above mentioned interventions do translate into better clinical and prognostic outcomes (in terms of reduced cardiovascular morbidity and mortality) for such patients.


The key to success with diabetes and its complications is early diagnosis and immediate and ongoing treatment plans. With early diagnosis of baroreflex impairment in DM using the assessment methods outlined above and quick establishment of effective treatment plans, it is potentially possible to improve BRS and slow the progression of cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction in such patients.


This work was funded by a grant from the Polish Ministry of Higher Education and Science numbered 5808/B/T01/2010/38.

Conflict of interest: none declared


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