Heart rate is controlled by stimulatory sympathetic and inhibitory parasympathetic nerves innervating the sino-atrial node and cardiac conduction system. Sympathetic release of norepinephrine (NE) and parasympathetic release of acetylcholine (ACh) are controlled by the central nervous system, and by pre-synaptic inhibition of transmitter release within the atria. An increase in cardiac sympathetic transmission relative to parasympathetic transmission is pathological as it can lead to disturbances in heart rhythm, catecholaminergic toxicity and development of arrhythmias or fibrillation. Mice lacking the p75 neurotrophin receptor (p75-/-) have elevated atrial NE but a low heart rate suggesting autonomic dysregulation. Similarly, mice whose sympathetic neurons lack the gp130 cytokine receptor (gp130 KO) have a normal heart rate but enhanced bradycardia after vagal nerve stimulation. What is unclear is whether cardiac autonomic disturbances in these animals reflect systemic alterations in nerve activity or whether localized defects in neurotransmitter stores or release are involved. To examine local stimulus-evoked release of neurotransmitters, we have developed a novel method for simultaneous quantification of both NE and ACh after ex vivo atrial field stimulation. Using HPLC with electrochemical detection for NE, and HPLC with mass spectrometry for ACh, we found that following field stimulation NE release was impaired in p75-/- atria while ACh content and release was elevated in gp130 KO atria. Thus, alterations in localized transmitter release from atrial explants are consistent with in vivo deficits in heart rate control, suggesting peripheral alterations in autonomic transmission in these mice.
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