Summary: We explore the degree to which concepts developed in statistical physics can be usefully applied to physiological signals. We illustrate the problems related to physiological signal analysis with representative examples of human heartbeat dynamics under healthy and pathologic conditions. We first review recent progress based on two analysis methods, power spectrum and detrended fluctuation analysis, used to quantify long-range power-law correlations in noisy heartbeat fluctuations. The finding of power-law correlations indicates presence of scale-invariant, fractal structures in the human heartbeat. These fractal structures are represented by self-affine cascades of beat-to-beat fluctuations revealed by wavelet decomposition at different time scales.
We then describe very recent work that quantifies multifractal features in these cascades, and the discovery that the multifractal structure of healthy dynamics is lost with congestive heart failure. The analytic tools we discuss may be used on a wide range of physiologic signals.