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J Neurosci. 1999 Apr 15;19(8):3007-22.

Cholinergic and GABAergic inputs drive patterned spontaneous motoneuron activity before target contact.

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  • 1Department of Neurosciences, Case Western Reserve University, School of Medicine, Cleveland, Ohio 44106, USA.


Patterned spontaneous electrical activity has been demonstrated in a number of developing neural circuits and has been proposed to play a role in refining connectivity once axons reach their targets. Using an isolated spinal cord preparation, we have found that chick lumbosacral motor axons exhibit highly regular bursts of activity from embryonic day 4 (E4) (stage 24-25), shortly after they exit the spinal cord and while still en route toward their target muscles. Similar bursts could be evoked by stimulating descending pathways at cervical or thoracic levels. Unlike older embryonic cord circuits, the major excitatory transmitter driving activity was not glutamate but acetylcholine, acting primarily though nicotinic non-alpha7 receptors. The circuit driving bursting was surprisingly robust and plastic, because bursting was only transiently blocked by cholinergic antagonists, and following recovery, was now driven by GABAergic inputs. Permanent blockade of spontaneous activity was only achieved by a combination of cholinergic antagonists and bicuculline, a GABAA antagonist. The early occurrence of patterned motor activity suggests that it could be playing a role in either peripheral pathfinding or spinal cord circuit formation and maturation. Finally, the characteristic differences in burst parameters already evident between different motoneuron pools at E4 would require that the combination of transcription factors responsible for specifying pool identity to have acted even earlier.

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