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Neuroscience. 1992 Dec;51(4):973-87.

Transmitter diversity in carotid body afferent neurons: dopaminergic and peptidergic phenotypes.

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Department of Medicine, University Hospitals of Cleveland, OH.


Hypoxic stimulation of carotid body chemoreceptors is conveyed to the brainstem by primary sensory neurons whose peripheral axons run in the carotid sinus nerve. While considerable attention has focused on defining chemical neuroregulators released by glomus cells in the carotid body, our understanding of the morphology, distribution and transmitter phenotype of these carotid body afferent neurons remains limited. Carotid body afferent neurons were labeled by microinjection of the retrograde tracer, Fluorogold, into the vascularly isolated rat carotid body. In addition, immunoelectron microscopy was used to correlate transmitter phenotype with ultrastructural features of afferent terminals in the carotid body. Our results indicate that 41% of all carotid body afferent neurons express tyrosine hydroxylase, the rate-limiting enzyme in catecholamine biosynthesis, whereas 7% contain substance P. Tyrosine hydroxylase- and substance P-positive neurons constitute separate subpopulations of carotid body afferents, as these two phenotypes were not colocalized. Most of the tyrosine hydroxylase-containing carotid body afferent neurons were small- or medium-sized (mean cell diameter 15-20 microns) and located in the distal petrosal ganglion, whereas the majority of substance P-containing carotid body afferent neurons were medium- to large-sized (mean cell diameter 20-29 microns) and located in the proximal petrosal ganglion and jugular ganglion. These differences strengthen the notion that these catecholaminergic and peptidergic carotid body afferent neurons give rise to functionally distinct subsets of chemoafferent fibers. To further characterize the catecholaminergic phenotype expressed by tyrosine hydroxylase-positive cells in the petrosal ganglion, we examined the colocalization of tyrosine hydroxylase and DOPA decarboxylase, the dopamine-synthesizing enzyme. Eighty-six per cent of tyrosine hydroxylase-positive neurons in the distal petrosal ganglion also contained DOPA decarboxylase; as these cells do not express the norepinephrine-synthesizing enzyme, dopamine beta-hydroxylase, these data indicate that the catecholaminergic carotid body afferent neurons are dopaminergic. Finally, ultrastructural analysis of the peripheral processes of tyrosine hydroxylase-positive afferent terminals in the carotid body demonstrated endings in close opposition to Type I glomus cells, consistent with a role for dopaminergic afferent neurons in carotid body chemoreception. One possibility is that these cells, in addition to their role as afferents, constitute a morphologic substrate for dopaminergic "efferent" inhibition in the carotid body.

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