Incomplete sympathic reinnervation of the orthotopically transplanted human heart: observation up to 13 years after heart transplantation

P Uberfuhr, S Ziegler, M Schwaiblmair, B Reichart, M Schwaiger
European Journal of Cardio-thoracic Surgery 2000, 17 (2): 161-8

OBJECTIVE: Heart transplantation (HTx) is associated with autonomic denervation of the donor heart. Sympathetic reinnervation (RI) as defined by the presence of functional nerve terminals occurs only if sympathetic ganglia outside the heart are connected with nerve terminals in the transplanted heart. The purpose of this study was to define the incidence and functional consequences of RI over time after HTx. The activity and distribution of norepinephrine (NE) uptake sites were assessed by positron emission tomography (PET) imaging. Symptom limited exercise testing was performed by bicycle-ergometer.

METHODS: Forty-seven patients (m:f=42:5, 47.6+/-8. 2 years, age range 27-65 years) were investigated between 2 months and 13.6 years after HTx using PET and the NE analogue C-11-hydroxyephedrine (HED). Tracer uptake was quantified using dynamic imaging protocols yielding regional HED retention fraction. A regional value above 7%/min (+/-2.5 SD above the mean value of denervated hearts) was considered evidence for RI. The functional significance of RI was investigated in 34 patients (m:f=30:4, 49. 3+/-8.4 age range 27-62 years) by symptom limited exercise testing. Cardiac catheterization was performed at the time of PET imaging.

RESULTS: RI could not be assessed in the first year after HTx, in 11% in the second year and in 80% of the patients from the third year on. Retention values plateaued then. In all time intervals, beyond the third year, not reinnervated patients were found. RI remained incomplete and was always restricted to the anterior wall of the left ventricle. Extent of retention of the left ventricle revealed a large individual range up to 66%, averaging of 20%. Recipient age at the time of HTx, reinnervated patients were 5.5 years younger than not reinnervated ones, proved as the only significant influencing factor for RI (P<0.05). Dividing patients into scintigraphically reinnervated (n=20) and not reinnervated (n=14), reinnervated patients displayed during exercise a higher maximal heart rate (137+/-14 vs. 123+/-20/min, P<0.05), heart rate increase (40+/-15 vs. 28+/-13/min, P<0.05), max. oxygen consumption (1674+/-424 vs. 1279+/-308 ml/min, P<0.01) and anaerobic threshold (887+/-170 vs. 717+/-183 mlO(2)/min, P<0.01) than not reinnervated ones. A correlation between transplant vasculopathy and RI could not be demonstrated.

CONCLUSION: ++: RI assessed by PET and the NE analogue HED is time dependent, incomplete, displays a typical pattern and demonstrates a broad individual spread. Furthermore, RI enhances functional parameters of exercise testing.

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