Heart period variability (standard deviation of 120 consecutive RR or PP intervals) was used to assess baseline parasympathetic activity in 18 patients with congestive heart failure before and after orthotopic cardiac transplantation, and was compared to that of 16 age-matched control subjects. Mean heart period variability (± standard error of the mean) was significantly greater (p < 0.05) in control subjects (58 ± 5 ms) than in the patients at any time before or after transplantation. Heart period variability of innervated recipient atria did not change significantly early (1 to 4 weeks) after transplantation (16 ± 2 to 24 ± 5 ms; p = 0.11), but increased significantly between weeks 15 and 37 after transplantation (30 ± 5 ms, p < 0.002 versus before transplantation). A stepwise regression model (R2 = 0.35; p = 0.01) showed that heart period variability was directly related to time after transplantation and inversely related to systolic arterial pressure after transplantation and degree of rejection. Heart period variability of the denervated donor atria did not change from early to late periods after transplantation, suggesting that vagal reinnervation of the donor heart had not occurred. These data indicate that baseline parasympathetic activity does not increase significantly during the first month after transplantation but increases significantly between months 3 and 6.