In control subjects and in subjects with primary Raynaud's disease, sudden sound evokes the pattern of the alerting response, which includes cutaneous vasoconstriction and vasodilatation in forearm muscle. However, whereas this pattern of response habituates on repetition of the sound stimulus in control subjects, both cutaneous vasoconstriction and muscle dilatation persist in subjects with primary Raynaud's disease. The aim of the present study was to test whether a similar disparity exists between control subjects and those with primary Raynaud's disease for the response to mild cool stimuli, and whether the cutaneous response is accompanied by the release of endothelin-1 (ET-1). In nine subjects with primary Raynaud's disease and in nine matched controls, the left hand was placed in cool water at 16 °C for 2 min five times on each of three experimental sessions on days 1, 3 and 5, with blood being taken from the venous drainage of the cooled hand before and at the end of the second session. In response to the first cool stimulus in Session 1, the subjects with primary Raynaud's disease showed a decrease in digital cutaneous vascular conductance (DCVC) in both the right and left hands, as indicated by a laser Doppler recording of erythrocyte (red cell) flux divided by arterial pressure, and six of the nine subjects showed an increase in forearm vascular conductance (FVC), as indicated by forearm blood flow measured by plethysmography divided by arterial pressure. On repetition of the stimulus in Session 1, there was no change in the magnitude of the increase in FVC, but the evoked decreases in DCVC became more prolonged in both the right and the left hand. Similar responses occurred in Sessions 2 and 3; in Session 2, the ET-1 concentration increased from a baseline value of 2.15±0.26 fM to 2.72±0.37 fM after five stimuli. There was no habituation of the increase in FVC over Sessions 1, 2 and 3, judging from the mean changes in each session. Control subjects also showed a decrease in DCVC in both hands, and in eight out of nine subjects there was an increase in FVC in response to the first cool stimulus in Session 1. However, on repetition of the stimulus in Session 1, the increase in FVC habituated, while there was no prolongation of the decrease in DCVC; in addition, the ET-1 concentration did not change in Session 2 in response to the stimulus (2.07±0.28 compared with 2.29±0.30 fM). Further, the increase in FVC habituated over the three sessions, such that there was a mean decrease in FVC in Session 3. These results indicate that, in subjects with primary Raynaud's disease, there is impairment of the ability of the central nervous system to allow habituation of the cardiovascular components of the alerting response evoked by mild cooling, as with the response to sound. We propose that persistence of the cutaneous vasoconstriction of the alerting response, coupled with increased release of ET-1 secondary to vasoconstriction, prolongs such vasoconstriction and eventually leads to vasospasm.

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