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Sympathetic nerve activity in metabolic control – some basic concepts


Jan Fagius, Department of Neurology, University Hospital, SE-751 85 Uppsala, Sweden.


A role for the sympathetic nervous system in hypertension has been looked for in relation to the ‘metabolic syndrome’ with associations between body weight, insulin sensitivity and hypertension. By use of microneurography human sympathetic responses to hypoglycaemia, normoglycaemic hyperinsulinaemia and food intake have been studied. A strong but differentiated influence of insulin-induced hypoglycaemia comprises increase in muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA) and the sudomotor part of skin sympathetic nerve activity (SSNA), whereas vasoconstrictor SSNA is inhibited. Responses to infusion of 2-deoxy-d-glucose are identical, suggesting central nervous system glucopenia and not insulin to be the causative factor. Insulin infusion during normoglycaemia evokes a moderate increase in MSNA; SSNA and blood pressure does not change.

After glucose ingestion MSNA displays a sustained increase, which is only partly elicited by insulin. A significant albeit weaker increase occurs after pure protein or fat meals, and after glucose ingestion in C-peptide-negative diabetic patients, with no insulin secretion. In healthy elderly people the MSNA response to food intake is weak, because of a high outflow already at rest; this is suggested to explain postprandial hypotension in the elderly, a paradoxical mechanism behind clinical autonomic failure.

A pathophysiological role of MSNA in the metabolic syndrome with hypertension has been speculated. An association between obesity and elevated level of MSNA at rest is established; observed relationships to chronic insulin levels and hypertension are less unanimous. The adipous tissue regulating hormone leptin has become one focus of interest in ongoing attempts to elucidate a possible role of the human sympathetic nervous system in the ‘metabolic syndrome’ and hypertension.

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