To determine whether elevations of plasma norepinephrine (NE) in major depression represent increased sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity and to assess the effects of desipramine hydrochloride on sympathetic function.
SNS activity was assessed in depressed patients and controls by an isotope-dilution, plasma NE Kinetic technique using mathematical modeling and compartmental analysis. This approach provided estimates of the rate of NE appearance into an extravascular compartment, which is the site of endogenous NE release from SNS nerves, the corresponding rate of NE appearance into plasma, and the rate of NE clearance from plasma.
Norepinephrine appearance into the extravascular and vascular compartments was significantly elevated in 17 depressed patients compared with that in 36 controls. The rate of NE clearance from plasma was similar in both groups. This is compatible with increased SNS activity in major depression. Desipramine, given for 2 days, significantly reduced the concentration of NE in plasma of patients and controls by markedly suppressing the rates of extravascular and vascular NE appearance, compatible with a short-term reduction in SNS activity. Desipramine prolonged the rate of NE clearance from plasma, consistent with a blockade of NE re-uptake into SNS nerve terminals. The initial suppression of SNS activity by desipramine was reversed by long-term (28 days) treatment of patients, with extravascular and vascular NE appearance rates returning to approximately basal levels. An associated rise in plasma NE concentrations compared with the baseline was attributable to a progressive reduction in plasma NE clearance.
Sympathetic nervous system activity is elevated in major depression and is suppressed by short-term desipramine administration. The demonstration of SNS reactivation occurring with prolonged desipramine treatment is compatible with the theory that long-term treatment desensitizes CNS α2-adrenergic receptors and emphasizes the value of examining the temporal course of responses to pharmacological challenges of neuroendocrine systems. Previously reported elevations of plasma NE during prolonged administration of tricyclic antidepressants are probably the result of a reduction in plasma NE clearance, not an increase in SNS activity.