Cholinergic vagal nerves projecting from neurons in the brain stem nucleus ambiguus (NAm) play a predominant role in cardiac parasympathetic pacemaking control. Central adrenergic signaling modulates the tone of this vagal output; however, the exact excitability mechanisms are not fully understood. We investigated responses of NAm neurons to adrenergic agonists using in vitro mouse brain stem slices. Preganglionic NAm neurons were identified by ChAT-tdTomato fluorescence in young adult transgenic mice, and their cardiac projection was confirmed by retrograde dye tracing. Juxtacellular recordings detected sparse or absent spontaneous action potentials (AP) in NAm neurons. However, bath application of epinephrine or norepinephrine strongly and reversibly activated most NAm neurons regardless of their basal firing rate. Epinephrine was more potent than norepinephrine, and this activation largely depends on α1-adrenoceptors. Interestingly, adrenergic activation of NAm neurons does not require an ionotropic synaptic mechanism, because postsynaptic excitatory or inhibitory receptor blockade did not occlude the excitatory effect, and bath-applied adrenergic agonists did not alter excitatory or inhibitory synaptic transmission. Instead, adrenergic agonists significantly elevated intrinsic membrane excitability to facilitate generation of recurrent action potentials. T-type calcium current and hyperpolarization-activated current are involved in this excitation pattern, although not required for spontaneous AP induction by epinephrine. In contrast, pharmacological blockade of persistent sodium current significantly inhibited the adrenergic effects. Our results demonstrate that central adrenergic signaling enhances the intrinsic excitability of NAm neurons and that persistent sodium current is required for this effect. This central balancing mechanism may counteract excessive peripheral cardiac excitation during increased sympathetic tone. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Cardiac preganglionic cholinergic neurons in the nucleus ambiguus (NAm) are responsible for slowing cardiac pacemaking. This study identified that adrenergic agonists can induce rhythmic action potentials in otherwise quiescent cholinergic NAm preganglionic neurons in brain stem slice preparation. The modulatory influence of adrenaline on central parasympathetic outflow may contribute to both physiological and deleterious cardiovascular regulation.
Keywords: cardiac vagal; epinephrine; nucleus ambiguus; pacemaking; parasympathetic.