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J Comp Neurol. 2008 Feb 1;506(4):616-26.

Synapses between corticotropin-releasing factor-containing axon terminals and dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area are predominantly glutamatergic.

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  • 1Intramural Research Program, National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, Baltimore, Maryland 21224, USA.


Interactions between stress and the mesocorticolimbic dopamine (DA) system have been suggested from behavioral and electrophysiological studies. Because corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) plays a role in stress responses, we investigated possible interactions between neurons containing CRF and those producing DA in the ventral tegmental area (VTA). We first investigated the cellular distribution of CRF in the VTA by immunolabeling VTA sections with anti-CRF antibodies and analyzing these sections by electron microscopy. We found CRF immunoreactivity present mostly in axon terminals establishing either symmetric or asymmetric synapses with VTA dendrites. We established that nearly all CRF asymmetric synapses are glutamatergic, insofar as the CRF-immunolabeled axon terminals in these synapses coexpressed the vesicular glutamate transporter 2, and that the majority of CRF symmetric synapses are GABAergic, insofar as the CRF-immunolabeled axon terminals in these synapses coexpressed glutamic acid decarboxylase, findings that are of functional importance. We then looked for synaptic interactions between CRF- and DA-containing neurons, by using antibodies against CRF and tyrosine hydroxylase (TH; a marker for DA neurons). We found that most synapses between CRF-immunoreactive axon terminals and TH neurons are asymmetric (in the majority likely to be glutamatergic) and suggest that glutamatergic neurons containing CRF may be part of the neuronal circuitry that mediates stress responses involving the mesocorticolimbic DA system. The presence of CRF synapses in the VTA offers a mechanism for interactions between the stress-associated neuropeptide CRF and the mesocorticolimbic DA system.

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