In this paper we assessed the possibility of using the pulse rate variability (PRV) extracted from the photoplethysmography signal as an alternative measurement of the HRV signal in non-stationary conditions. The study is based on analysis of the changes observed during a tilt table test in the heart rate modulation of 17 young subjects. First, the classical indices of HRV analysis were compared to the indices from PRV in intervals where stationarity was assumed. Second, the time-varying spectral properties of both signals were compared by time-frequency (TF) and TF coherence analysis. Third, the effect of replacing PRV with HRV in the assessment of the changes of the autonomic modulation of the heart rate was considered. Time-invariant HRV and PRV indices showed no statistically significant differences (p > 0.05) and high correlation (>0.97). Time-frequency analysis revealed that the TF spectra of both signals were highly correlated (0.99 +/- 0.01); the difference between the instantaneous power, in the LF and HF bands, obtained from HRV and PRV was small (<10(-3) s(-2)) and their temporal patterns were highly correlated (0.98 +/- 0.04 and 0.95 +/- 0.06 in the LF and HF bands, respectively) and TF coherence in the LF and HF bands was high (0.97 +/- 0.04 and 0.89 +/- 0.08, respectively). Finally, the instantaneous power in the LF band was observed to significantly increase during head-up tilt by both HRV and PRV analysis. These results suggest that although some differences in the time-varying spectral indices extracted from HRV and PRV exist, mainly in the HF band associated with respiration, PRV could be used as a surrogate of HRV during non-stationary conditions, at least during the tilt table test.