The sympathetic nervous system and ischaemic heart disease

Eur Heart J. 1998 Jun;19 Suppl F:F62-71.


The sympathetic nervous system, coronary artery disease and myocardial ischaemia are related in different ways. First, the sympathetic system may be involved in the process of atherosclerosis through platelet activation and subsequent platelet-derived growth factor formation and by inducing mechanical injury to the vascular wall as a result of increased blood pressure and increased flow velocity. Secondly, sympathetic control of coronary vasomotor tone, which under normal conditions is not important, becomes functionally significant once coronary artery disease endothelial dysfunction has occurred. Under these circumstances, increased sympathetic adrenergic tone may lead to coronary vasoconstriction and, as myocardial oxygen demand increases concomitantly, myocardial ischaemia may ensue. Alternatively, myocardial ischaemia activates several neurohormonal systems, such as the sympathetic and, during more severe ischaemia, the circulating renin-angiotensin system. This leads to systemic and, possibly, coronary vasoconstriction and thus to further myocardial ischaemia. Prolonged myocardial ischaemia results in progressive norepinephrine release from the heart, reaching extracellular levels as high as 100-1000 x plasma concentrations. As cardiac beta-receptor density rises simultaneously, sympathetically-induced irreversible myocardial damage may occur, although through concomitantly increased beta-receptor kinase activity the beta-receptor may become functionally inactive. To counteract the detrimental effects of enhanced sympathetic activation on the heart, beta-blockade appears to be the proper choice. However, acute beta-blockade may lead to more profound ischaemia-induced neurohormonal activation and hence to vascular constriction through unoccupied alpha-receptors. In contrast, under ischaemic conditions and with concomitant beta-blockade, acute alpha-blockade does improve subendocardial flow and reduces myocardial ischaemia. A novel approach to anti-ischaemic therapy, which relates to modulating ischaemia-induced sympathetic activation, is through ACE inhibition. ACE inhibitors affect myocardial ischaemia by reducing neurohormonal activation and related systemic and coronary vasoconstriction. These acute effects may become more important over time, as coronary endothelial function improves following long-term ACE inhibition. A large multicentre controlled trial comparing ACE inhibition with placebo in patients with coronary artery disease, the EUROPA (EUopean trial on Reduction Of cardiac events with Perindopril in stable coronary Artery disease), which is currently underway, addresses the issue of whether ACE inhibition does in fact offer a novel approach in myocardial ischaemia.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic alpha-Antagonists / adverse effects
  • Adrenergic alpha-Antagonists / therapeutic use
  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists / adverse effects
  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists / therapeutic use
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme Inhibitors / adverse effects
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Coronary Circulation / drug effects
  • Coronary Circulation / physiology
  • Coronary Disease / drug therapy
  • Coronary Disease / physiopathology*
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Humans
  • Myocardial Ischemia / drug therapy
  • Myocardial Ischemia / physiopathology*
  • Norepinephrine / physiology*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / drug effects
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Vasoconstriction / drug effects
  • Vasoconstriction / physiology


  • Adrenergic alpha-Antagonists
  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Norepinephrine