The study was designed to determine the three-dimensional organization of the rat intrinsic cardiac neural plexus (ICNP) and to ascertain whether the rat heart undergoes a decrease in neuronal number with aging as has been reported for other mammalian species, including human. Juvenile (3-4 weeks of age, n = 14) and adult (more than 2 months of age, n = 23) animals were examined using enzyme histochemistry for acetylcholinesterase in order to visualize the ICNP in total hearts. The number of intrinsic cardiac neurons was estimated by counting nerve cells in serial sections of the atrial pieces stained with cresyl fast violet. The total number of intrinsic cardiac neurons in old rats was 6576 ± 317. The juvenile animals contained significantly fewer such neurons, only 5009 ± 332. Approximately 70% of all intracardiac neurons were amassed within the heart hilum, while 30% of the neurons were distributed epicardially. Within the interatrial septum, only 11 ± 11 neurons were identified in the juvenile and 6 ± 4 neurons in old rats. Extrinsic nerves entered the rat heart in both the arterial and venous parts of the cardiac hilum. The nerves from the arterial part of the cardiac hilum extended directly to the ventricles but the nerves from the venous part of the hilum formed a particular nerve plexus of the cardiac hilum on the heart base. Within the rat epicardium, intrinsic nerves clustered into six routes by which they selectively projected to different atrial and/or ventricular regions. In conclusion, this study provides a detailed description of the three-dimensional organization of the rat ICNP and contradicts the decrease in neuronal number with aging in the rat heart.
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