Evidence now indicates that exaggerated sympathetic nerve activity (SNA) significantly contributes to salt-sensitive cardiovascular diseases. Although CNS mechanisms that support the elevation of SNA in various cardiovascular disease models have been intensively studied, many mechanistic details remain unknown. In recent years, studies have shown that SNA can rise as a result of both acute and chronic increases of body fluid osmolality. These findings have raised the possibility that salt-sensitive cardiovascular diseases could result, at least in part, from direct osmosensory activation of CNS sympathetic drive. In this brief review we emphasize recent findings from several laboratories, including our own, which demonstrate that neurons of the forebrain organum vasculosum laminae terminalis (OVLT) play a pivotal role in triggering hyperosmotic activation of SNA by recruiting neurons in specific regions of the hypothalamus, brainstem and spinal cord. Although OVLT neurons are intrinsically osmosensitive and shrink when exposed to extracellular hypertonicity, it is not yet clear if these processes are functionally linked. Whereas acute hypertonic activation of OVLT neurons critically depends on TRPV1 channels, studies in TRPV1-/- mice suggest that acute and long-term osmoregulatory responses remain largely intact. Therefore, acute and chronic osmosensory transduction by OVLT neurons may be mediated by distinct mechanisms. We speculate that organic osmolytes such as taurine and possibly novel processes such as extracellular acidification could contribute to long-term osmosensory transduction by OVLT neurons and might therefore participate in the elevation of SNA in salt-sensitive cardiovascular diseases.
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