Mechanisms Underlying Intensive Care Unit Muscle Wasting : Intervention Strategies in an Experimental Animal Model and in Intensive Care Unit Patients

Abstract: Critically ill patients admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) commonly develop severe muscle wasting and weakness and consequently impaired muscle function. This not only delays respirator weaning and ICU discharge, but has deleterious effects on morbidity, mortality, financial costs, and quality of life of survivors. Acute Quadriplegic Myopathy (AQM) is one of the most common neuromuscular disorders underlying ICU muscle wasting and paralysis, and is a consequence of modern intensive care interventions, although the exact causes remain unclear. Muscle gene/protein expression, intracellular signalling, post-translational modifications, muscle membrane excitability, and contractile properties at the single muscle fibre level were explored in order to unravel the mechanisms underlying the muscle wasting and weakness associated with AQM and how this can be counteracted by specific intervention strategies. A unique experimental rat ICU model was used to address the mechanistic and therapeutic aspects of this condition, allowing time-resolved studies for a period of two weeks. Subsequently, the findings obtained from this model were translated into a clinical study. The obtained results showed that the mechanical silencing of skeletal muscle, i.e., absence of external strain (weight bearing) and internal strain (myosin-actin activation) due to the pharmacological paralysis or sedation associated with the ICU intervention, is likely to be the primary mechanism triggering the preferential myosin loss and muscle wasting, features specifically characteristic of AQM. Moreover, mechanical silencing induces a specific gene expression pattern as well as post-translational modifications in the motor domain of myosin that may be critical for both function and for triggering proteolysis. The higher nNOS expression found in the ICU patients and its cytoplasmic dislocation are indicated as a probable mechanism underlying these highly specific modifications. This work also demonstrated that passive mechanical loading is able to attenuate the oxidative stress associated with the mechanical silencing and induces positive effects on muscle function, i.e., alleviates the loss of force-generating capacity that underlie the ICU intervention, supporting the importance of early physical therapy in immobilized, sedated, and mechanically ventilated ICU patients.