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Sympathetic activation in human heart failure: diverse mechanisms, therapeutic opportunities


John S. Floras, Suite 1614, Mount Sinai Hospital, 600 University Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5G 1X5.


Plasma noradrenaline (NA) concentrations relate both to the severity of heart failure, and to its impact on survival, but have shortcomings that limit their usefulness as measures of sympathetic discharge. Neural recordings and the isotopic dilution method for determining organ-specific rates of NA spillover into plasma have enhanced our understanding of mechanisms responsible for sympathetic activation. Because the arterial baroreceptor reflex control of heart rate is impaired in heart failure, a parallel reduction in the reflex inhibition of sympathetic outflow has been assumed. However, human heart failure is characterized by rapidly responsive arterial baroreflex regulation of muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA), attenuated cardiopulmonary reflex modulation of MSNA, and activation of a cardiac-specific sympatho-excitatory reflex related to increased cardiopulmonary filling pressures. Together, these baroreceptor mediated mechanisms account only, in part, for the time course and magnitude of adrenergic activation in heart failure. Non-baroreflex sympatho-excitatory mechanisms include: a metaboreflex arising from exercising skeletal muscle, mediated, in part, by adenosine, co-existing sleep apnoea, and pre-junctional facilitation of NA release. Thus, sympathetic activation in the setting of impaired systolic function reflects the net balance and interaction between augmented excitatory and diminished inhibitory influences. Variation, between patients, in the dynamics, magnitude and progression of sympathetic activation mandates an individualized approach to investigation and therapy. Excessive sympathetic outflow to the heart and periphery can be addressed by several complimentary strategies: attenuating these sympatho-excitatory stimuli, modulating the neural regulation of NA release, and blocking the actions of catecholamines at post-junctional receptors.