Myths and realities of the cardiac vagus

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Abstract

There is continuing belief that cardiac parasympathetic postganglionic fibres are sparse or absent from the ventricles. This review of the literature shows that the supposition is a myth. Early studies considered that fine silver-stained fibres coursing amongst ventricle myocardial cells were most likely cardiac parasympathetic postganglionic fibres. The conclusions were later supported by acetyl cholinesterase staining using a method that appeared not to be associated with noradrenaline nerve fibres. The conclusion is critically examined in the light of several recent histological studies using the acetyl cholinesterase method and also a more definitive technique (CHAT), that suggest a widespread location of parasympathetic ganglia and a relatively dense parasympathetic innervation of ventricular muscle in a range of mammals including man. The many studies demonstrating acetylcholine release in the ventricle on vagal nerve stimulation and a high density of acetylcholine M2 receptors is in accord with this as are tests of ventricular performance from many physiological studies. Selective control of cardiac functions by anatomically segregated parasympathetic ganglia is discussed. It is argued that the influence of vagal stimulation on ventricular myocardial action potential refractory period, duration, force and rhythm is evidence that vagal fibres have close apposition to myocardial fibres. This is supported by clear evidence of accentuated antagonism between sympathetic activity and vagal activity in the ventricle and also by direct effects of vagal activity independent of sympathetic activity. The idea of differential control of atrial and ventricular physiology by vagal C and vagal B preganglionic fibres is examined as well as differences in chemical phenotypes and their function. The latter is reflected in medullary and supramedullary control. Reference is made to the importance of this knowledge to understanding the normal physiology of cardiac autonomic control and significance to pathology.

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