• human heart;
  • cardiac innervation;
  • immunohistochemistry;
  • cardiac conduction system;
  • infancy;
  • childhood;
  • adulthood;
  • senility


In order to study the changes in the pattern of autonomic innervation of the human cardiac conduction system in relation to age, the innervation of the conduction system of 24 human hearts (the age of the individuals ranged from newborn to 80 years), freshly obtained at autopsy, was evaluated by a combination of immunofluorescence and histochemical techniques. The pattern of distribution and density of nerves exhibiting immunoreactivity against protein gene product 9.5 (PGP), a general neural marker, dopamine β-hydroxylase (DBH) and tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), indicators for presumptive sympathetic neural tissue, and those demonstrating positive acetylcholinesterase (AChE) activity, were studied. All these nerves showed a similar pattern of distribution and developmental changes. The density of innervation, assessed semiquantitatively, was highest in the sinus node, and exhibited a decreasing gradient through the atrioventricular node, penetrating and branching bundle, to the bundle branches. Other than a paucity of those showing AChE activity, nerves were present in substantial quantities in infancy. They then increased in density to a maximum in childhood, at which time the adult pattern was achieved and then gradually decreased in density in the elders to a level similar to or slightly less than that in infancy. In contrast, only scattered AChE-positive nerves were found in the sinus and atrioventricular nodes, but were absent from the bundle branches of the infant heart, whereas these conduction tissues themselves possessing a substantial amount of pseudocholinesterase. During maturation into adulthood, however, the conduction tissues gradually lost their content of pseudocholinesterase but acquired a rich supply of AChE-positive nerves, comparable in density to those of DBH and TH nerves. The decline in density of AChE-positive nerves in the conduction tissues in the elders was also similar to those of DBH and TH nerves. Our findings of initial sympathetic dominance in the neural supply to the human cardiac conduction system in infancy, and its gradual transition into a sympathetic and parasympathetic codominance in adulthood, correlate well with the physiologic alterations known to occur in cardiac rate during postnatal development. The finding of reduction in density of innervation of the conduction tissue with ageing is also in agreement with clinical and electrophysiological findings such as age-associated reduction in cardiac response to parasympathetic stimulation. Finally, our findings also support the hypothesis that, in addition to the para-arterial route, the parafascicular route of extension along the conduction tissue constitutes another pathway for the innervation of the conduction system of the human heart during development. Anat Rec 264:169–182, 2001. © 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.