BACKGROUND Elevated awake resting heart rate (HR) has been shown to be a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Since coronary ischaemic events appear to peak during transition from sleep to awake HR, we sought to determine whether the degree of diurnal HR fluctuation (dHRV) is an independent predictor of coronary and peripheral atherogenesis. In this study, we varied both baseline HR and dHRV using sino-atrial node ablation (SNA) in a primate model of diet-induced atherogenesis and determined the degree of plaque formation relative to both HR parameters. METHODS HR was recorded continuously for 6 months by an implantable intraaortic sensor/transmitter in 17 active unrestricted male cynomolgus monkeys. In nine monkeys, SNA was employed to create a wide spectrum of dHRV, and the power amplitude of dHRV was determined for the daily HRV cycle with power spectral analysis. After a 6-month diet induction period, percent coronary and carotid stenosis, intimal thickness and area were quantitated in each animal. RESULTS Total serum cholesterol and mean HR were no different between high ( n= 10) and low ( n= 7) dHRV groups (866 mg% vs. 740 mg%, P> 0.2 and 130 +/- 22 and 115 +/- 13, P> 0.1, respectively). Percent carotid stenosis was markedly greater in both high HR and dHRV animals ([HR], 54 +/- 19 vs. 35 +/- 10, P< 0.04) and ([dHRV], 54 +/- 17 vs. 32 +/- 10, P< 0.01). Significant increases in all measures of coronary atherogenesis were found in high dHRV animals when compared with those with low dHRV (percent stenosis: 48% +/- 22 vs. 23% +/- 16, P< 0.02), (lesion area: 1.2 +/- 0.8 vs. 0.3 +/- 0.3, P< 0.02), and (intimal thickness: 0.3 +/- 0.1 vs. 0.1 +/- 0.1, P< 0.01), respectively. While there was a trend towards greater coronary atherogenesis in animals with high HR, this did not reach statistical significance. CONCLUSION Elevated HR and dHRV are both associated with enhanced experimental atherosclerotic plaque formation. However, a greater degree of carotid and coronary atherogenesis is observed in animals with high dHRV. These findings suggest that elevated dHRV is a stronger predictor for susceptibility to atherogenesis than elevated HR alone. Such a relationship may be attributed to the potential role of dHRV in modulating the frequency of adverse near wall haemodynamic forces, which have been shown to induce atherosclerotic plaques. Lowering of dHRV in humans by exercise or pharmacological agents may have a beneficial role in retarding atherosclerotic plaque induction, progression and complication.