Since changes of heart period follow changes of cardiac vagal efferent activity quantitatively with nearly fixed latencies, measurements of respiratory sinus arrhythmia may provide insights into human central vagal mechanisms. Accordingly, I measured intervals between heartbeats during controlled breathing (at breathing intervals of 2.5-10 s and nominal tidal volumes of 1,000 and 1,500 ml) in six healthy young men and women. As breathing interval increased, the longest heart periods became longer, the shortest heart periods became shorter, and the peak-valley P-P intervals increased asymptotically. Peak-valley P-P intervals also increased in proportion to tidal volume. However, this influence was small: a 50% increase of tidal volume increased the average peak-valley P-P interval by only about 15%. The phase angles between heart period changes and respiration varied as linear functions of breathing interval. Heart period shortening (cardioacceleration) began in inspiration at short breathing intervals and in expiration at long breathing intervals. Heart period lengthening, however, began in early expiration at all breathing intervals studied. These results point toward a close relationship between variations of respiratory depth and interval and the quantity, periodicity, and timing of vagal cardiac outflow in conscious humans. They suggest that, at usual breathing rates, phasic respiration-related changes of vagal motoneuron activity began in expiration, progress slowly, and are incompletely expressed at fast breathing rates.