Intracoronary acetylcholine produces endothelium-dependent dilation of normal coronary arteries and paradoxical constriction of atherosclerotic vessels. Regional differences in endothelium-dependent vasomotion, however, have not been studied in relation to the nonuniform development of atherosclerosis. We compared the vasomotor response to increasing doses of acetylcholine of angiographically smooth coronary artery segments prone to atherosclerosis (coronary branch points) with segments remote from branch points (straight segments). In patients with entirely smooth coronary arteries and a dilator response to acetylcholine (group 1, n = 7), branch points and straight segments demonstrated equal and significant dose-dependent dilation to acetylcholine (14.7 +/- 8.9% and 12.3 +/- 12.7%, respectively; p identical to NS). In patients with early atherosclerosis as manifest by luminal coronary irregularities, the lowest dose of acetylcholine (10(-8) M) produced constriction at branch points and slight dilation at straight segments (-6.3 +/- 7.4% vs. +2.2 +/- 7.3%, p less than 0.05). At higher doses of acetylcholine, both branch point and straight segments constricted, but constriction remained more pronounced at branch points. Both branch point and straight segments, however, retained the ability to dilate to the non-endothelium-dependent agent, nitroglycerin. In a third group of patients with angiographically entirely smooth coronary arteries but without dilation to acetylcholine, constriction to acetylcholine again occurred first at branch points. Thus, coronary branch points demonstrate increased sensitivity to acetylcholine-induced constriction in patients with angiographic evidence of early coronary atherosclerosis and in middle-aged patients with smooth coronary arteries. These segments, however, retain the ability to dilate to nitroglycerin. Whether this early evidence of defective endothelium-dependent vasodilation predicts the later development of occlusive atherosclerosis is not yet known.
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