Cardiac autonomic neuropathy is a frequent complication of diabetes and often presents as impaired cholinergic regulation of heart rate. Some have assumed that diabetics have degeneration of cardiac cholinergic nerves, but basic knowledge on this topic is lacking. Accordingly, our goal was to evaluate the structure and function of cardiac cholinergic neurons and nerves in C57BL/6 mice with streptozotocin-induced diabetes. Electrocardiograms were obtained weekly from conscious control and diabetic mice for 16 weeks. Resting heart rate decreased in diabetic mice, but intrinsic heart rate was unchanged. Power spectral analysis of electrocardiograms revealed decreased high frequency and increased low frequency power in diabetic mice, suggesting a relative reduction of parasympathetic tone. Negative chronotropic responses to right vagal nerve stimulation were blunted in 16-week diabetic mice, but postjunctional sensitivity of isolated atria to muscarinic agonists was unchanged. Immunohistochemical analysis of hearts from diabetic and control mice showed no difference in abundance of cholinergic neurons, but cholinergic nerve density was increased at the sinoatrial node of diabetic mice (16 weeks: 14.9±1.2% area for diabetics versus 8.9±0.8% area for control, P<0.01). We conclude that disruption of cholinergic function in diabetic mice cannot be attributed to a loss of cardiac cholinergic neurons and nerve fibers or altered cholinergic sensitivity of the atria. Instead, decreased responses to vagal stimulation might be caused by a defect of preganglionic cholinergic neurons and/or ganglionic neurotransmission. The increased density of cholinergic nerves observed at the sinoatrial node of diabetic mice might be a compensatory response.
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