1. Diabetic autonomic neuropathy causes loss of sympathetic cardiovascular control and is associated with increased vascular sensitivity to catecholamines. Supersensitivity to catecholamines could be due to either a postsynaptic increase in vascular sensitivity or to decreased catecholamine uptake into peripheral sympathetic nerve endings.
2. To differentiate between these possible mechanisms we have measured the responsiveness in vivo to noradrenaline and phenylephrine with local infusions into peripheral veins of diabetic patients with and without symptomatic autonomic neuropathy and of healthy control subjects. The dorsal hand vein compliance technique was used.
3. Symptomatic diabetic patients required significantly lower doses of noradrenaline for half-maximal venoconstriction (ED50) (geometric mean 2.14 ng/min) than control subjects (geometric mean 6.61 ng/min, P = 0.032), but there was no difference in the results from the phenylephrine dose-response curves between the groups. Thesre were no differences in venous responsiveness to noradrenaline or phenylephrine between the asymptomatic diabetic group and the control group. However, in the asymptomatic diabetic group, postural blood pressure change (an index of loss of sympathetic control) was correlated with the ED50 for noradrenaline (r = 0.74, P = 0.014), but not with the ED50 for phenylephrine. In the control group the ED50 values for noradrenaline and phenylephrine were correlated with each other (r= 0.81, P= 0.0005).
4. Both vasopressor drugs act on vascular α-adrenoceptors, but only noradrenaline is taken up into peripheral sympathetic nerve endings. Our results suggest that, in diabetic patients, vascular supersensitivity to catecholamines is primarily determined by decreased neuronal catecholamine uptake. A postsynaptic increase in vascular a-adrenoceptor stimulation does not appear to be prominent in diabetic autonomic neuropathy.