Autonomic neuropathy involving parasympathetic innervation is a complication of diabetes mellitus. Biochemical and morphological indices of the parasympathetic innervation of the heart were investigated in rats after diabetes mellitus was induced with streptozocin (STZ). Choline acetyltransferase (CAT) activity was used as a biochemical marker for parasympathetic innervation. Total CAT activity within the hearts of diabetic rats was unchanged after 1 and 2 wk of diabetes and was significantly reduced after 4, 8, and 12 wk. Morphological changes within the cardiac portion of the parasympathetic innervation were assessed at 8 wk when CAT activity was decreased. In diabetic rats, there was a reduction in both cardiac ganglion cell size and number. In contrast, in insulin-treated STZ-induced diabetic rats, ganglion cells were similar in size and number to those in a control group given 3-O-methylglucose to prevent induction of diabetes mellitus by STZ. Thus, diabetes mellitus is associated with alterations in cardiac parasympathetic innervation in rats, and supplemental insulin protects against these changes. These alterations may contribute to impaired parasympathetic neural control of the heart in diabetes mellitus.

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