Background: Although enhanced efferent cardiac sympathetic nervous activity has been proposed as an important factor in the genesis of ventricular arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death, direct clinical evidence has been lacking.
Methods: We measured the rates of total and cardiac norepinephrine spillover into the plasma, which reflect respectively overall and cardiac sympathetic nervous activity, in 12 patients who had recovered from a spontaneous, sustained episode of ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation outside the hospital 4 to 48 days earlier. The results were compared with those from three age-matched reference groups without a history of ventricular arrhythmias: 12 patients with coronary artery disease, 6 patients with chest pain but normal coronary arteries, and 12 healthy, normal subjects.
Results: The patients who had had ventricular arrhythmias had reduced left ventricular ejection fractions, as compared with the patients with coronary artery disease or chest pain (mean [+/- SE], 46 +/- 3 percent vs. 58 +/- 4 percent and 69 +/- 5 percent, respectively; P less than 0.003). The rates of total norepinephrine spillover into the plasma were similar in the three reference groups, but 80 percent higher in the patients with ventricular arrhythmias (P less than 0.005). The rate of cardiac norepinephrine spillover was 450 percent higher in these patients (176 +/- 39 pmol per minute, as compared with 32 +/- 8 pmol per minute in the normal subjects; P less than 0.001), a disproportionate increase relative to the increase in total spillover, which indicated selective activation of the cardiac sympathetic outflow. This increase in cardiac norepinephrine spillover was probably caused by a reduction in left ventricular function.
Conclusions: These results suggest that in some patients major ventricular arrhythmias are associated with and perhaps caused by sustained and selective cardiac sympathetic activation. We speculate that depressed ventricular function was present before the ventricular arrhythmia occurred, and that this resulted in reflex cardiac sympathetic activation, which in turn contributed to the genesis of the arrhythmia.