Diabetes is commonly associated with increased risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality. Perturbations in sympathetic nervous system (SNS) signaling have been linked to the progression of diabetic heart disease. Glucose, insulin, and free fatty acids contribute to elevated sympathetic nervous activity and norepinephrine release. Reduced left ventricular compliance and impaired cardiac function lead to further SNS activation. Chronic elevation of cardiac norepinephrine culminates in altered expression of pre- and post-synaptic sympathetic signaling elements, changes in calcium regulatory proteins, and abnormal contraction-excitation coupling. Clinically, these factors manifest as altered resting heart rate, depressed heart rate variability, and impaired cardiac autonomic reflex, which may contribute to elevated cardiovascular risk. Development of molecular imaging probes enable a comprehensive evaluation of cardiac SNS signaling at the neuron, postsynaptic receptor, and intracellular second messenger sites of signal transduction, providing mechanistic insights into cardiac pathology. This review will examine the evidence for abnormal SNS signaling in the diabetic heart and establish the physiological consequences of these changes, drawing from basic biological research in isolated heart and rodent models of diabetes, as well as from clinical reports. Particular attention will be paid to the use of molecular imaging approaches to non-invasively characterize and evaluate sympathetic signal transduction in diabetes, including pre-synaptic norepinephrine reuptake assessment using 11C-meta-hydroxyephedrine (11C-HED) with PET or 123I-metaiodobenzylguanidine (123I-MIBG) with SPECT, and postsynaptic β-adrenoceptor density measurements using CGP12177 derivatives. Finally, the review will attempt to define the future role of these non-invasive nuclear imaging techniques in diabetes research and clinical care.
Keywords: Sympathetic neuronal imaging, SNS signaling, norepinephrine, β-adrenoceptor, norepinephrine reuptake transporter