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J Physiol. 2015 May 1;593(9):2199-211. doi: 10.1113/JP270062. Epub 2015 Mar 24.

Impaired increases in skin sympathetic nerve activity contribute to age-related decrements in reflex cutaneous vasoconstriction.

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Department of Kinesiology, Noll Laboratory, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA.



The reduction in skin blood flow during whole-body cooling is impaired in healthy older adults. However, the relative contributions of altered skin sympathetic nerve activity (SSNA), transduction of this efferent neural outflow to the cutaneous vasculature, and peripheral vascular responsiveness to adrenergic stimuli to the impaired reflex vasoconstrictor response to whole-body cooling in human ageing remain unclear. We report that the SSNA response to whole-body cooling is blunted in healthy older adults, and this attenuated sympathetic response is related to a marked impairment in reflex cutaneous vasoconstriction. Further, the reflex SSNA response to a non-thermoregulatory stimulus was preserved in older adults during cooling. We additionally show that cutaneous vascular responsiveness to adrenergic stimuli is not reduced in older adults. These results further our understanding of the physiological mechanisms underlying impaired thermal-cardiovascular integration in healthy ageing.


Reflex cutaneous vasoconstriction is impaired in older adults; however, the relative roles of altered skin sympathetic nerve activity (SSNA) and end-organ peripheral vascular responsiveness are unclear. We hypothesized that in older adults whole-body cooling would elicit a blunted SSNA response and cutaneous adrenergic responsiveness would be reduced. Twelve young adults (Y; 24 ± 1 years) and 12 older adults (O; 57 ± 2 years) participated in two protocols. In Protocol 1, SSNA (peroneal microneurography) and red cell flux in the affected dermatome (laser Doppler flowmetry; dorsum of foot) were measured during whole-body cooling (mean skin temperature (Tsk ) 30.5°C; water-perfused suit). Mental stress was performed at mean Tsk 34.0°C (thermoneutral) and at 30.5°C. In Protocol 2, an intradermal microdialysis fibre was placed in the skin of the lateral calf for graded infusions of noradrenaline (norepinephrine) (NA; 10(-12) to 10(-2)  m). Cutaneous vascular conductance (CVC = flux/mean arterial pressure) was expressed as a change from baseline (ΔCVCbase ). Vasoconstriction was attenuated in O. SSNA increased significantly during cooling in Y (+184 ± 37%; P < 0.05) but not O (+51 ± 12%; P > 0.05). Mental stress at Tsk 30.5°C further increased SSNA in both groups. There was no age-related difference in adrenergic responsiveness to exogenous NA (logEC50 : -6.41 ± 0.24 in Y, -6.37 ± 0.25 in O; P > 0.05). While the SSNA response to whole-body cooling is impaired with ageing, SSNA can be further increased by a non-thermoregulatory stimulus. Cutaneous adrenergic sensitivity is not reduced in O. These findings suggest that alterations in afferent signalling or central processing likely contribute to blunted SSNA responses to cooling and subsequent impairments in reflex cutaneous vasoconstriction in ageing.

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