How to assess sympathetic activity in humans

J Hypertens. 1999 Jun;17(6):719-34. doi: 10.1097/00004872-199917060-00001.


Sympathetic factors play a central role not only in cardiovascular homeostatic control but also in the pathogenesis and/or in the progression of several cardiovascular diseases, such as essential hypertension, myocardial infarction, cardiac arrhythmias and congestive heart failure. This explains why assessment of adrenergic neural function in humans has been, and certainly still remains, one of the major fields in cardiovascular research. The present paper will review in detail the haemodynamic, pharmacological, biochemical, neurophysiological, neurochemical and neural imaging techniques by which sympathetic activity is assessed in humans, highlighting the main advantages and limitations of each of them. Although plasma noradrenaline measurement represents a useful guide to assess sympathetic neural function, direct recording of sympathetic nerve traffic via microneurography and noradrenaline radiotracer methods have in recent years largely supplanted the plasma noradrenaline approach. This is because they allow (1) discrimination between the central or peripheral nature of increased plasma noradrenaline levels, and (2) precise estimation of the behaviour of regional sympathetic neural function both under physiological and pathological conditions. In contrast, the approach based on spectral analysis of heart rate and blood pressure signals has been shown to have important limitations which prevent the method from faithfully reflecting sympathetic cardiovascular drive. Neural imaging techniques, which require expensive technical support, allow direct visualization of sympathetic enervation of human organs, thus providing information on the 'in vivo' metabolism of noradrenaline in different cardiovascular districts. Although technical improvements have allowed a more precise assessment of human adrenergic function, no technique so far available can be viewed as a 'gold standard' with which the others might be compared. Limitations and disadvantages of the various techniques may be reduced if these methods are seen as being complementary and employed in combination, allowing more reliable information to be achieved on the sympathetic abnormalities characterizing cardiovascular diseases, and thus hopefully providing a stronger rationale for newer therapeutic approaches involving pharmacological modification of the sympathetic nervous system and adrenoreceptors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cardiovascular System / innervation*
  • Hemodynamics / physiology
  • Humans
  • Norepinephrine / blood
  • Norepinephrine / urine
  • Sympathetic Nervous System* / diagnostic imaging
  • Sympathetic Nervous System* / physiology
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed


  • Norepinephrine