Many humans with IDDM eventually lose the capacity to secrete epinephrine from their adrenal medullae. The mechanism for this pathological change is unknown. We hypothesized that this abnormality is attributable to neuropathic changes in the greater splanchnic nerves or in the chromaffin cells that they innervate. To study this hypothesis, we isolated rat adrenal glands, perfused them ex vivo, and measured the epinephrine content of the perfusate under various conditions of stimulation. We used transmural electrical stimulation (20–80 V, at 10 Hz) to induce epinephrine secretion indirectly by selectively activating residual splanchnic nerve terminals within the isolated glands. Under these conditions, epinephrine secretion was severely attenuated in glands from female BB-Wistar rats with diabetes of 4 mo duration compared with their age-matched, nondiabetic controls. These perfused diabetic adrenal medullae also demonstrated decreased catecholamine release in response to direct chromaffin cell depolarization with 20 mM K+, evidence that a functional alteration exists within the chromaffin cells themselves. Nonetheless, total catecholamine content of adrenal medullae from these diabetic rats was not significantly different from controls, indicating that the secretory defect was not simply attributable to a difference in the amount of catecholamines stored and available for release. Herein, we also provide histological evidence of degenerative changes within the cholinergic nerve terminals that innervate these glands.

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