This study was prompted by the prospect of transgenic pigs providing donor hearts for transplantation in human recipients. Autonomic innervation is important for the control of cardiac dynamics, especially in the conduction system. Our objective was to assess the relative distribution of autonomic nerves in the pig heart, focusing initially on the conduction system but addressing also the myocardium, endocardium and epicardium (see Crick et al. 1999). Quantitative immunohistochemical and histochemical techniques were adopted. All regions of the conduction system possessed a significantly higher relative density of the total neural population immunoreactive for the general neuronal marker protein gene product 9.5 (PGP 9.5) than did the adjacent myocardium. A similar density of PGP 9.5-immunoreactive innervation was observed between the sinus node, the transitional region of the atrioventricular node, and the penetrating atrioventricular bundle. A differential pattern of PGP 9.5-immunoreactive innervation was present within the atrioventricular node and between the components of the ventricular conduction tissues, the latter being formed by an intricate network of Purkinje fibres. Numerous ganglion cell bodies were present in the peripheral regions of the sinus node, in the tissues of the atrioventricular groove, and even in the interstices of the compact atrioventricular node. Acetylcholinesterase (AChE)-containing nerves were the dominant subpopulation observed, representing 60-70% of the total pattern of innervation in the nodal tissues and penetrating atrioventricular bundle. Tyrosine hydroxylase (TH)-immunoreactive nerves were the next most abundant neural subpopulation, representing 37% of the total pattern of innervation in the compact atrioventricular node compared with 25% in the transitional nodal region. A minor population of ganglion cell bodies within the atrioventricular nodal region displayed TH immunoreactivity. The dominant peptidergic nerve supply possessed immunoreactivity for neuropeptide Y (NPY), which displayed a similar pattern of distribution to that of TH-immunoreactive nerve fibres. Calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP)-immunoreactive nerves represented 8-9% of the total innervation of the nodal tissues and penetrating atrioventricular bundle, increasing to 14-19% in the bundle branches. Somatostatin-immunoreactive nerve fibres were relatively sparse (4-13% of total innervation) and were most abundant in the nodes, especially the compact atrioventricular node. The total pattern of innervation of the porcine conduction system was relatively homogeneous. A substantial proportion of nerve fibres innervating the nodal tissues could be traced to intracardiac ganglia indicative of an extensive intrinsic supply. The innervation of the atrioventricular node and ventricular conduction tissues was similar to that observed in the bovine heart, but markedly different to that of the human heart. It is important that we are aware of these findings in view of the future use of transgenic pig hearts in human xenotransplantation.
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