A hallmark of chronic heart failure (HF) with low ejection fraction (HFrEF) is exercise intolerance. We hypothesized that reduced expression of nuclear factor E2-related factor 2 (Nrf2) in skeletal muscle contributes to impaired exercise performance. We further hypothesized that curcumin, a Nrf2 activator, would preserve or increase exercise capacity in HF. Experiments were carried out in mice with coronary artery ligation-induced HFrEF. Curcumin was deliveried by a subcutaneous osmotic minipump at a dose of 50 mg·kg-1·day-1 for 8 weeks. In vivo, in situ, and in vitro experiments were employed to evaluate exercise capacity, muscle function, and molecular mechanisms. We found that: 1) the maximal speed, running distance to exhaustion, and limb grip force were significantly lower in HFrEF mice compared with sham. Curcumin-treated HF mice displayed enhanced exercise performance compared with vehicle-treated HF mice; 2) both soleus (Sol) and extensor digitorum longus (EDL) muscles of HFrEF mice exhibited reduced force and rapid fatigue, which were ameliorated by curcumin; and 3) protein expression of Nrf2, hemeoxygenase-1, SOD2, myogenin, and MyoD were significantly lower, but total ubiquitinated proteins, MURF1, and atrogen-1 were higher in Sol and EDL of HFrEF compared with sham mice, whereas these alterations in Nrf2 signaling and antioxidant defenses in HFrEF were attenuated by curcumin, which had no effect on cardiac function per se in mice with severe HFrEF. These data suggest that impaired Nrf2 signaling intrinsic to skeletal muscle contributes to exercise intolerance in HFrEF. Skeletal muscle Nrf2 should be considered as a novel therapeutic target in severe HF. NEW & NOTEWORTHY These studies suggest that impaired nuclear factor E2-related factor 2 (Nrf2) signaling is a critical mechanism underlying the enhanced oxidative stress in skeletal muscle in heart failure with low ejection fraction (HFrEF). Curcumin prevents the decline in running performance in HFrEF mice by upregulating antioxidant defenses in skeletal muscle, likely mediated by activating Nrf2 signaling. These findings suggest a novel therapeutic target for the improvement of exercise capacity and quality of life in HFrEF patients.
Keywords: HFrEF; exercise intolerance; myopathy; oxidative stress.