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Physiological and pathophysiological firing properties of single postganglionic sympathetic neurons in humans

Journal article
Authors V. G. Macefield
Gunnar B Wallin
Published in Journal of Neurophysiology
Volume 119
Issue 3
Pages 944-956
ISSN 0022-3077
Publication year 2018
Published at Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology, Department of Clinical Neuroscience
Pages 944-956
Language en
Keywords microneurography, single-unit, sympathetic nervous system, sympathoexcitation, muscle vasoconstrictor neurons, superior cervical-ganglion, human, heart-failure, spinal-cord-injury, human skin nerves, obstructive, sleep-apnea, sweat glands, neuroeffector characteristics, renovascular, hypertension, general-characteristics, Neurosciences & Neurology, Physiology
Subject categories Neurosciences


It has long been known from microneurographic recordings in human subjects that the activity of postganglionic sympathetic axons occurs as spontaneous bursts, with muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA) exhibiting strong cardiac rhythmicity via the baroreflex and skin sympathetic nerve activity showing much weaker cardiac modulation. Here we review the firing properties of single sympathetic neurons, obtained using highly selective microelectrodes. Individual vasoconstrictor neurons supplying muscle or skin, or sudomotor neurons supplying sweat glands, always discharge with a low firing probability (similar to 30%) and at very low frequencies (similar to 0.5 Hz). Moreover, they usually fire only once per cardiac interval but can fire greater than four times within a burst. Modeling has shown that this pattern can best be explained by individual neurons being driven by, on average, two preganglionic inputs. Unitary recordings of muscle vasoconstrictor neurons have been made in several pathophysiological states, including heart failure, hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, bronchiectasis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, and panic disorder. The augmented MSNA in each of these diseases features an increase in firing probability and discharge frequency of individual muscle vasoconstrictor neurons above that seen in healthy subjects, yet firing rates rarely exceed 1 Hz. However, unlike patients with heart failure, all patients with respiratory disease or panic disorder, and patients with hyperhidrosis, exhibited an increase in multiple within-burst firing, which emphasizes the different modes by which the sympathetic nervous system grades its output in pathophysiological states of high sympathetic nerve activity.

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