Rats with chronic streptozotocin (SZ) diabetes develop dilatation of the alimentary tract, loss of fecal consistency, and autonomic neuropathy involving unmyelinated axons of the extrinsic innervation of the small bowel. Diabetic autonomic neuropathy involving the ileal mesenteric nerves is characterized by modest to marked dilatation of axons by distinctive subcellular organelles identical to those described in experimental and clinical axonal dystrophies. Axonopathy is confined to the alimentary tract; examination of myelinated and unmyelinated axons of the sciatic (midthigh level) and distal somatic nerves of the tail of diabetic animals with prominent ileal axonopathy failed to demonstrate significant numbers of dystrophic axons.
The prevention or reversal of diabetic autonomic neuropathy by a variety of experimental manipulations clearly indicates that the lesions we have demonstrated in chronically SZ-induced diabetic animals were produced by diabetes and were not the result of a direct neurotoxic effect of the diabetogenic agent streptozotocin. Animals did not develop axonopathy after simultaneous administration of SZ and nicotinamide, a procedure which prevents pancreatic beta-cell necrosis and induction of diabetes while exposing the nervous system to a possible neurotoxic agent. Selected animals that were given SZ, became diabetic, and subsequently received daily insulin therapy or pancreatic islet transplantation also did not develop axonopathy. Transplantation of pancreatic islets 6 mo after induction of diabetes, a time at which mesenteric axonopathy was well developed, quickly reestablished normoglycemia, and within 3 mo resulted in nearly complete resolution of the neuropathy. Mild chronic diabetes maintained for 5–6 mo failed to produce significant levels of axonopathy. Diabetes-induced alteration in the gross appearance and weight of portions of the digestive tract and stool consistency were completely or partially prevented by institution of diabetic control.