Aim: To describe developmental aspects of the sympathovagal heart rate regulation in the human fetus by applying numerics to visual descriptions of fetal heart rate patterns throughout the third trimester of pregnancy. The focus is to determine potential benefits of this alternative means of assessing the maturation of the fetal autonomic nervous system by analysis of fetal heart rate variability (fHRV). Subjects and methods: The magnetocardiograms of 103 normal fetuses between 24q1 and 41q6 weeks of gestation were studied. Fetal heart beat intervals were determined with a temporal precision of 1 ms. The levels of fetal activity were estimated according to characteristic heart rate patterns (I–III) prior to 32, between 32–35 and beyond 35 (groups 1–3) completed weeks. Mean heart rate (mHR), standard deviation of normal-to-normal beat intervals (SDNN) and root mean square of successive differences of normal beats (RMSSD) served as fHRV indices, mean permutation entropy (PE_Mean) as complexity measure. SDNN/RMSSD was introduced as a potential marker for sympatho-vagal balance. Results: Low activity fHRP (I) were characterized by significantly lower level fHRV indices and higher PE_Mean when compared to fHRP II. We found that SDNN/RMSSD decreases with gestation in fHRP I, which suggests increasing vagal influence. In fHRP III (assigned to active awake fetuses only after 32 weeks), highest level SDNN and mHR are associated with a dramatically reduced complexity. fHRV indices cluster characteristically with the activity levels. Conclusions: We conclude that a combined analysis of fHRV, based on SDNN/RMSSD and PE_Mean, and fHRP is advantageous in the assessment of maturation of the fetal autonomic nervous system.
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