Heterogeneous myocardial sympathetic denervation complicating diabetes has been invoked as a factor contributing to sudden unexplained cardiac death. In subjects with diabetic autonomic neuropathy (DAN), distal left ventricular (LV) denervation contrasts with preservation of islands of proximal innervation, which exhibit impaired vascular responsiveness. The aims of this study were to determine whether this heterogeneous pattern of myocardial sympathetic denervation occurs in a rat model of diabetes and to explore a potential association with regional fluctuations in myocardial nerve growth factor (NGF) protein. Myocardial sympathetic denervation was characterized scintigraphically using the sympathetic neurotransmitter analog C-11 hydroxyephedrine ([11C]HED) and compared with regional changes in myocardial NGF protein abundance and norepinephrine content after 6 and 9 months in nondiabetic (ND) and streptozotocin-induced diabetic (STZ-D) rats. In ND rats, no difference in [11C]HED retention or norepinephrine content was detected in the proximal versus distal myocardium. After 6 months, compared with ND rats, myocardial [11C]HED retention had declined in the proximal segments of STZ-D rats by only 9% (NS) compared with a 33% decrease in the distal myocardium (P < 0.05). Myocardial norepinephrine content was similar in both ND and STZ-D rats. At 6 months, LV myocardial NGF protein content in STZ-D rats decreased by 52% in the proximal myocardial segments (P < 0.01 vs. ND rats) and by 82% distally (P < 0.01 vs. ND rats, P < 0.05 vs. proximal segments). By 9 months, [11C]HED retention had declined in both the proximal and distal myocardial segments of the STZ-D rats by 42% (P < 0.01 vs. ND rats), and LV norepinephrine content and NGF protein were decreased in parallel. Therefore, 6 months of STZ-induced diabetes results in heterogeneous cardiac sympathetic denervation in the rat, with maximal denervation occurring distally, and is associated with a proximal-to-distal gradient of LV NGF protein depletion. It is tempting to speculate that regional fluctuations of NGF protein in the diabetic myocardium contribute to heterogeneous cardiac sympathetic denervation complicating diabetes.

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