Recently we reported that an efferent vagal fibre-mediated cholinergic protective pathway, activated by melanocortins acting at brain melanocortin MC(3) receptors, is operative in a condition of short-term myocardial ischemia/reperfusion associated with a high incidence of severe arrhythmias and death. Here we investigated melanocortin effects, and the role of the vagus nerve-mediated cholinergic protective pathway, in a rat model of prolonged myocardial ischemia/reperfusion associated with marked inflammatory and apoptotic reactions, and a large infarct size. Ischemia was produced in rats by ligature of the left anterior descending coronary artery for 30 min. At the end of the 2-h reperfusion, western blot analysis of the inflammatory and apoptotic markers tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), c-jun N-terminal kinases (JNK) and caspase-3, as well as of the anti-apoptotic extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERK 1/2), was performed in the left ventricle. In saline-treated ischemic rats there was an increase in TNF-alpha levels and in the activity of JNK and caspase-3 accompanied, despite an appreciable ERK 1/2 activation, by a large infarct size. Intravenous treatment, during coronary artery occlusion, with the melanocortin analog [Nle(4), D-Phe(7)]alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (NDP-alpha-MSH) produced a reduction in TNF-alpha levels and in the activity of JNK and caspase-3, associated with marked activation of the pro-survival kinases ERK 1/2, and consequent attenuation of infarct size. Bilateral cervical vagotomy blunted the protective effects of NDP-alpha-MSH. These results indicate that melanocortins modulate the inflammatory and apoptotic cascades triggered by prolonged myocardial ischemia/reperfusion, and reduce infarct size, seemingly by activation of the vagus nerve-mediated cholinergic protective pathway.
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