Pure autonomic failure (PAF) is a rare sporadic disorder characterized by autonomic failure in the absence of a movement disorder or dementia and is associated with very low plasma norepinephrine (NE) levels—suggesting widespread sympathetic denervation, however due to its rarity the pathology remains poorly elucidated. We sought to correlate clinical and neurochemical findings with sympathetic nerve protein abundances, accessed by way of a forearm vein biopsy, in patients with PAF and in healthy controls and patients with multiple systems atrophy (MSA) in whom sympathetic nerves are considered intact. The abundance of sympathetic nerve proteins, extracted from forearm vein biopsy specimens, in 11 patients with PAF, 8 patients with MSA and 9 age-matched healthy control participants was performed following a clinical evaluation and detailed evaluation of sympathetic nervous system function, which included head-up tilt (HUT) testing with measurement of plasma catecholamines and muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA) in addition to haemodynamic assessment to confirm the clinical phenotype. PAF participants were found to have normal abundance of the NE transporter (NET) protein, together with very low levels of tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) (P<0.0001) and reduced vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2) (P<0.05) protein expression compared with control and MSA participants. These findings were associated with a significantly higher ratio of plasma 3,4-dihydroxyphenylglycol (DHPG):NE in PAF participants when compared with controls (P<0.05). The finding of normal NET abundance in PAF suggests intact sympathetic nerves but with reduced NE synthesis. The finding of elevated plasma ratio of DHPG:NE and reduced VMAT2 in PAF indicates a shift towards intraneuronal NE metabolism over sequestration in sympathetic nerves and suggests that sympathetic dysfunction may occur ahead of denervation.

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