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Cardiovascular Physiology Concepts

Richard E. Klabunde, PhD


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Sympathetic Activation in Heart Failure

Sympathetic activation during heart failure serves as an important compensatory mechanism, but is also a precipitating factor in worsening heart failure. A common finding in heart failure patients and experimental models is that the sympathetic adrenergic branch of the autonomic nervous system is activated. This results in:

Cardiac stimulation

Sympathetic activation of the heart causes an increase in heart rate and inotropy via the release of norepinephrine acting primarily upon β1-adrenoceptors. The increase in inotropy by sympathetic activation, however, may not be sufficient to restore normal inotropy particularly in ventricles having systolic dysfunction. Inotropic responses are also blunted because of down regulation of β1-adrenoceptors.

Sympathetic activation has other important effects which can be deleterious, including ventricular hypertrophy, enhanced arrhythmogenesis, and molecular and biochemical changes that lead to further dysfunction over time.

Therefore, although sympathetic activation may play some compensatory role in the failing heart, there is considerable evidence that it actually exacerbates heart failure. For this reason, the use of certain beta-blockers in some forms of heart failure has been gaining in popularity because of their proven efficacy.

Peripheral vascular constriction

Arterial and venous vessels are richly innervated by sympathetic nerves. Activation of these nerves causes release of norepinephrine that binds primarily to post-junctional α1-adrenoceptors causing smooth muscle activation and vasoconstriction. Arterial vasoconstriction increases systemic vascular resistance which raises arterial pressure. In heart failure, particularly when cardiac output is significantly reduced, arterial vasoconstriction helps to maintain arterial pressure. The increased systemic vascular resistance, however, contributes to an increase in afterload on the heart which can further depress systolic function. Peripheral vasoconstriction, particularly in the smaller arterioles, limits muscle perfusion during exercise thereby contributing to the decrease in exercise capacity. Contraction of venous vessels enhance venous return and preload, which helps to maintain stroke volume through the Frank-Starling mechanism. The resulting increase in venous pressure, however, can lead to peripheral edema.

In summary, peripheral vasoconstriction caused by enhanced sympathetic activation can be both beneficial and deleterious in heart failure. The deleterious aspects of sympathetic activation can be offset by using arterial and venous vasodilator drugs. This therapeutic approach is very important in the treatment of heart failure.

Activation of the renin-angiotensin system

Enhanced sympathetic outflow to the kidneys causes an increase in renin release. This is mediated by β-adrenoceptors in the kidney. Plasma renin activity, therefore, is often elevated in heart failure patients, in part, because of increased sympathetic activity. Increased renin release causes increased formation of angiotensin II that has several important effects on volume regulation, blood pressure regulation, and cardiac function and pathology.

Revised 04/07/07

DISCLAIMER: These materials are for educational purposes only, and are not a source of medical decision-making advice.