Concomitant with the development of surgical treatment of cardiac arrythmias and management of myocardial ischemia, there is renewed interest in morphology of the intrinsic cardiac nervous system. In this study, we analyze the topography and structure of the human epicardiac neural plexus (ENP) as a system of seven ganglionated subplexuses. The morphology of the ENP was revealed by a histochemical method for acetylcholinesterase in whole hearts of 21 humans and examined by stereoscopic, contact, and bright-field microscopy. According to criteria established to distinguish ganglionated subplexuses, they are epicardiac extensions of mediastinal nerves entering the heart through discrete sites of the heart hilum and proceeding separately into regions of innervation by seven pathways, on the courses of which epicardiac ganglia, as wide ganglionated fields, are plentifully located. It was established that topography of epicardiac subplexuses was consistent from heart to heart. In general, the human right atrium was innervated by two subplexuses, the left atrium by three, the right ventricle by one, and the left ventricle by three subplexuses. The highest density of epicardiac ganglia was identified near the heart hilum, especially on the dorsal and dorsolateral surfaces of the left atrium, where up to 50% of all cardiac ganglia were located. The number of epicardiac ganglia identified for the human hearts in this study ranged from 706 up to 1,560 and was not correlated with age in most heart regions. The human heart contained on average 836 +/- 76 epicardiac ganglia. The structural organization of ganglia and nerves within subplexuses was observed to vary considerably from heart to heart and in relation to age. The number of neurons identified for any epicardiac ganglion was significantly fewer in aged human compared with infants. By estimating the number of neurons within epicardiac ganglia and relating this to the number of ganglia in the human epicardium, it was calculated that approximately 43,000 intrinsic neurons might be present in the ENP in adult hearts and 94,000 neurons in young hearts (fetuses, neonates, and children). In conclusion, this study demonstrates the total ENP in humans using staining for acetylcholinesterase, and provides a morphological framework for an understanding of how intrinsic ganglia and nerves are structurally organized within the human heart.
Copyright 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.