Sympathovagal imbalance in transsexual subjects

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    J. Endocrinol. Invest. 31: 1014-1019, 2008

    ABSTRACT. Context: Autonomic nervous system imbalance isrelated to cardiovascular risk. Heart rate variability (HRV) in-dexes are associated with age, race, and sex, but the role ofsex hormones is still unknown. Objective: To evaluate sym-pathovagal balance (SB) in transsexuals. Patients: Eighteentranssexual subjects, 12 male-to-female (group 1) and 6 fe-male-to-male (group 2), compared with 34 age-matched con-trols: 17 males (group 3) and 17 females (group 4). Auto-nomic testing of SB was performed by Power Spectral Anal-ysis (PSA) of HRV in clinostatism (c) and orthostatism (o). PSAidentifies power peaks: high frequency (HF) expresses vagalactivity, while low frequency (LF) expresses sympathetic ac-tivity. Results: Group 1 showed lower LFc than groups 2, 3,and 4 (p

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    diovascular risk due to autonomic balance and we be-lieve that it could also be useful in evaluating this risk intranssexual subjects.The aim of the present study was to evaluate the sym-pathovagal balance in transsexuals by means of powerspectral analysis of HRV, by comparison with both maleand female subjects. We hypothesize that sympathovagalimbalance may also be a cardiovascular risk factor intranssexual subjects.

    MATERIALS AND METHODSPatients and protocolWe studied the sympathovagal balance (SB) in 18 non-diabetictranssexual subjects, without dyslipidemia, with normal bodymass index: 12 male-to-female (M-to-F) (mean age 36.5814.99yr) and 6 female-to-male (F-to-M) (mean age 32.176.24 yr).Thirty-four age-matched subjects, 17 males (mean age36.1814.77 yr) and 17 females (mean age 34.598.21 yr)served as controls. We compared each group of transsexualswith both male and female controls: each group of transsexu-als was, therefore, compared with two control groups (malesand females). The duration of sex hormone therapy was6.005.41 yr for M-to-F and 3.832.85 yr for F-to-M.The subjects were divided into 4 groups: group 1=M-to-F, group2=F-to-M, group 3=males, group 4=females.All the transsexuals and controls had normal blood pressure andnormal ECG. The controls were not taking any hormonal or non-hormonal treatment.The hormonal profiles of patients and controls are shown inTable 1. The protocol was approved by the local Ethics Com-mittee, and written informed consent was obtained from thetranssexuals and controls.Two M-to-F previously underwent surgery for sex reassignmentand are now in therapy with estradiol (E2); 10 M-to-F were treat-ed with antiandrogen (9 with cyproterone acetate, 100 mg/dayand 1 with spironolactone, 200 mg/day) and estrogen (E2 hemi-hydrate in gel or oral tablets, 4 mg/day). Regarding concomi-tant treatments, 2 were in therapy with levo-T4 (LT4) for nodulargoiter.One F-to-M had previously undergone surgery for sex reas-signment and all were in therapy with depot testosterone (250mg im every 21 days). Regarding concomitant treatments, onlyone was taking LT4 for nodular goiter.

    HRV analysisAutonomic tests were performed by means of power spectralanalysis of HRV in clinostatism (c) and orthostatism (o), using afrequency domain method. HRV is a measure of autonomic ner-vous system balance. An electrocardiographic recording of R-Rintervals was made at 10:00 h in a quiet room reserved for thispurpose, at least 1 h after venopuncture for routine hormonalevaluation. Subjects were placed supine on a mechanically driv-en tilt-table and instructed to relax, stay awake, breathe regular-ly, and not to speak. After supine resting for about 10 min to sta-bilize blood pressure and heart rate, clinostatic R-R intervals wereacquired. Immediately thereafter, the patient was passivelybrought into the upright position by raising the table over a 30-sec period, and the recording was repeated. For both clinostat-ic and orthostatic postures, the ECG was consecutively recordedfor 330 sec by means of an electrocardiograph connected to a PCequipped with software which sampled the analogical signal atabout 200 Hz using an analogical/digital converter. Each R-R in-terval was measured in milliseconds and memorized as atachogram (R-R interval duration vs no. of heartbeats). Two seriesof data, corresponding to clinostatic (tachogram A) and ortho-static (tachogram B) R-R intervals, were analyzed in all subjectsby means of a parametric method based on the autoregressivemodel for the quantification of HRV signals.The main power densities in the high-frequency (HF) (0.15-0.4 Hz)and low-frequency (LF) (0.04-0.15 Hz) bands were identified foreach density spectrum. In addition, LF/HF ratios were calculated inboth clinostatism and orthostatism. An LF/HF greater than 1 is ev-idence of a normal SB. Power spectral analysis identifies 3 peaks ofpower: a peak of HF, which expresses vagal activity; a peak of LF,which expresses sympathetic activity; and a peak of very LF, whichis of uncertain significance. LF and HF are quantitative indicators ofneural control of the sinoatrial node; in particular, the LF compo-nent is a marker of sympathetic modulation, whereas the HF com-ponent is a marker of vagal modulation. LF/HF is regarded as anindex of sympathovagal balance in the frequency domain (22, 23).All HRV parameters were measured in milliseconds squared.

    Statistical analysisMann-Whitney U test for unpaired data was used for data com-parison between transsexuals and controls. Comparison withingroups was made by the non-parametric Wilcoxon test, usingSPSS program v.11.00. Graphics were elaborated by theSigmaplot 9.0 program (Systat Software, Inc., Richmond, CA).

    M-to-F F-to-M Males Females(no.12) (no.6) (no.17) (no.17)

    BMI (kg/cm2) (meanSD) 21.42.41 21.452.20 20.211.99 21.062.50

    Age (meanSD) 36.5814.99 32.176.24 36.1814.77 34.598.21

    LH (UI/l) 0.19 2.6 4.20 5.20median (25th-75th percentile) (0.10-0.66) (1.56-6.12) (2.15-5.50) (3.20-6.80)

    FSH (UI/l) 0.74 6.02 5.80 6.95median (25th-75th percentile) (0.10-6.6) (3.02-10.4) (4.5-7.40) (4.25-7.90)

    Estradiol (pg/ml) 74.30 29.25 18.05 68.50median (25th-75th percentile) (27-83) (22.40-37.40) (15.05-25.40) (50.45-78)

    Total testosterone (ng/ml) 0.50 3.30 5.40 0.50median (25th-75th percentile) (0.3-2) (1.5-5.9) (1.20-7.80) (0.2-0.80)

    Normal ranges: LH 0.6-16 UI/l; FSH 1.5-13 UI/l (follicular phase); total testosterone 0.2-0.8 ng/ml for females and 3.5-10 ng/ml for males; estradiol 20-80 pg/ml for females and

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    RESULTS

    The HRV variables are expressed as median (25th-75thpercentile).Group 1 showed significantly lower LFc [474.66 (301.54-819.56)] than groups 2 [1185.52 (881.78-1837.73)], 3[1292.62 (1139.45-1723.49)], and 4 [1630.98 (1397.98-2019.30)], (p

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    niques. A consensus has emerged that diminishedparasympathetic and/or increased sympathetic controlof heart rate contributes to increasing the risk of cardio-vascular events.Lower HRV has been demonstrated to be associated witha greater risk of developing hypertension among nor-motensive men (24). Moreover, lower HRV has beenfound to be related to sudden cardiac death (1, 2). Acutemyocardial infarction is associated with decreased HRV,which is due to reduced vagal or increased sympatheticoutflow to the heart (25). It has thus been proposed thatHRV be used as a prognostic factor for myocardial in-farction risk stratification and management (17). Resultsfrom population-based follow-up studies also suggestthat lower HRV is associated with the risk of developingCHD (26).It is known that HRV indexes are associated with age,race, and sex, with a predominance of sympathetic con-trol in men and a dominant parasympathetic influenceon heart rate regulation in women, and that these gen-der-related autonomic differences disappear in the el-derly. However, the role of sex hormones in this differ-ence is as yet unknown (12-14).Sex-related differences in the neurohumoral control ofthe cardiovascular system have been demonstrated dur-ing physical effort and in the hemodynamic adaptationto orthostatism. They have been postulated to explainthe lower mortality in women than in men among hyper-tensive or chronic heart failure patients (27).In addition to parasympathetic dominance in the control ofheart rate, women have been seen to display less LF spec-tral power of muscle sympathetic nerve activity and arteri-al blood pressure than men of the same age (28). These re-sults, together with epidemiological studies, suggest thata significant component of womens cardiovascular ad-vantage over men may result not only from greater relativeparasympathetic input to the heart, but also from lessersympathetic input to vascular regulation (29).Cardiovascular risk factors in transsexual subjects are notclearly understood. The cardiovascular risk due to auto-

    nomic balance in these subjects has not been previous-ly investigated. HRV could be a useful tool in the diag-nosis of cardiovascular pathologies in these subjects, andthe early subclinical detection of autonomic dysfunctionis therefore important for risk stratification and subse-quent management.While transsexualism is not a pathology, it constitutes anew and challenging field of research for endocrinolo-gists, and is able to shed new light on the use and role ofsex hormone therapy. Firstly, detecting the presence ofan autonomic imbalance in this population reveals a pos-sible cardiovascular risk due to the autonomic influenceon the heart. Secondly, it is important to classify the grav-ity of the risk in order to manage this population. Oncethe problem has been detected, risk stratification enablesus to identify those patients at greatest risk and to findproper solutions for their clinical management. For ex-ample, a deteriorated autonomic balance in a transsexu-al should suggest the re-modulation of the hormonaltherapy, namely reduction of the doses or the use of pro-tective strategies.Our data demonstrate that M-to-F transsexuals displaysignificantly lower sympathetic activity, both in clinos-tatism and in orthostatism, than males and females, andsignificantly lower sympathetic activity in clinostatism thanF-to-M transsexuals. Moreover, M-to-F have lowerparasympathetic activity, both in clinostatism and in or-thostatism, than males and females, and significantly low-er parasympathetic activity in clinostatism than F-to-M.The prevalence of sympathetic activity in males is associ-ated with higher cardiovascular risk. Our data indicate thatM-to-F display reduced sympathetic activity both in cli-nostatism and in orthostatism, which could reduce thespecific cardiovascular risk due to the higher sympathet-ic influence on the heart. This could be mediated by theeffect of hexogen estrogens, since these subjects do nothave other protective factors. Moreover, there are no da-ta regarding the possible interference of cyproterone ac-etate with the HRV parameters. Estrogen therapy may at-tenuate sympathetic regulation of heart rate, as reported

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    -10No. 12 6 17 17

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    Fig. 2 - Heart rate variability ratios in the 4 groups. A) Sympathetic activity (LF)/vagal activity (HF) in clinostatism (c); B) LF/HF in or-thostatism (o). ***p

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    (15). The estrogen therapy seems to have changed theautonomic features of this population and no differencesin the autonomic parameters between M-to-F patientstaking oral E2 and transdermal E2 were found. Moreover,this lowering of sympathetic activity showed that M-to-Fsubjects have been seen to reach HRV indexes that aremore similar to those recorded in females.Regarding parasympathetic activity, M-to-F transsexualsdo not attain parasympathetic dominance in the controlof heart rate, a protective feature typical of females.It has been reported that estrogens have a facilitating ef-fect on cardiac vagal function (12, 30), but this did notappear in our patients. Regarding the sympathovagal in-fluence on the heart, M-to-F transsexuals are totally dif-ferent from both females and males.F-to-M transsexuals display a lower parasympathetic ac-tivity than females and therefore lose the protective fea-ture of parasympathetic dominance in the control of heartrate, which is typical of females. This potential disadvan-tage could be due to the administration of hexogentestosterone, as they do not have other autonomic in-terfering factors. Diminished parasympathetic control ofheart rate contributes to increasing the risk of cardiovas-cular events. Moreover, F-to-M transsexuals do not dis-play different HRV parameters from those of males. In-deed, in F-to-M, cardiovascular risk, due to the auto-nomic influence on the heart, may be higher than in fe-males and become more similar to that of males.In this study we also analyzed the mechanism of posturaladaptation by making a comparison within groups. Incontrol subjects in clinostatism, LF prevails over HF, in-dicating a prevalence of sympathetic activity. On pass-ing from clinostatism to orthostatism, a mechanism ofpostural adaptation occurs, producing a decrease in va-gal activity (HF) and a further increase in sympathetic ac-tivity (LF). Indeed, in both categories of transsexuals, themechanism of postural adaptation is partially conserved.Finally, our data confirm the gender differences in HRVdescribed in literature, namely a prevalence of vagal tonein females. Detailed mechanisms linking estrogens andHRV warrant further exploration.In conclusion, our data revealed a sympathovagal imbal-ance in transsexual patients, due to a reduction in bothsympathetic and parasympathetic influence on heart rateregulation, irrespective of the type of hormone adminis-tered. Sex hormone therapy per se may therefore play arole in this imbalance. Transsexual subjects display fea-tures which are different from those of their genetic sex.The sympathetic reduction in M-to-F may lead to a low-er cardiovascular risk due to autonomic influence on heartrate. The parasympathetic reduction in F-to-M may leadto a higher cardiovascular risk due to autonomic influ-ence on heart rate.Our study involved a small number of patients, owing tothe difficulty of recruiting this kind of patient; moreover,our data are only preliminary. Nevertheless, we believe thatthis method could be applied to the study of cardiovascu-lar risk in transsexuals, which is not clearly understood, be-cause evaluating HRV is a well-recognized method of as-sessing cardiovascular risk due to autonomic activity. Wewould therefore like to open a new area of research intocardiovascular risk among transsexual patients.

    Further longitudinal studies, with a larger number of pa-tients, are needed in order to ascertain the clinical mean-ing and the role of sympathovagal imbalance in trans-sexuals.

    ACKNOWLEDGMENTSThis study was partially supported by grants from MIUR (2002067251-001) and the University of Genoa, and by an educational grant fromCARIGE Foundation to D.F. (research funding).

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