1. To differentiate between the possible reflex and mechanical components in the heart rate response to cough, eight healthy subjects performed a standardized cough test before and after pharmacological autonomic blockade; to test the clinical usefulness of the cough manoeuvre two groups of diabetic patients (without and with autonomic neuropathy) were compared with a group of age-matched normal subjects.

2. Because of the use of abdominal and expiratory muscles during cough, the cardioacceleratory response was compared with that induced by an intense contraction of the arm muscles (handgrip).

3. The cardioacceleratory response was completely abolished by atropine while propranolol failed to affect it. The diabetic patients with autonomic neuropathy showed a response similar to that after cholinergic blockade. The response was similar to that induced by muscular contraction for 4 s, after which it differed showing a continued cardioacceleration. The patterns of recovery were not different.

4. The cough-induced cardioacceleration is essentially reflex in nature and under cholinergic control; initially the mechanism may be partially related to the intense contraction of abdominal and expiratory muscles; later, the arterial hypotension related to the cough may contribute to the more sustained shortening of the R–R interval.

5. The cough test may be useful for the evaluation of cardiac parasympathetic integrity.

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