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J Chem Neuroanat. 2009 Jan;37(1):33-45. doi: 10.1016/j.jchemneu.2008.08.003. Epub 2008 Aug 19.

Cholinergic innervation and thalamic input in rat nucleus accumbens.

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Centre de recherche Fernand-Séguin, Université de Montréal, Montreal, Que., Canada


Cholinergic interneurons are the only known source of acetylcholine in the rat nucleus accumbens (nAcb); yet there is little anatomical data about their mode of innervation and the origin of their excitatory drive. We characterized the cholinergic and thalamic innervations of nAcb with choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) immunocytochemistry and anterograde transport of Phaseolus vulgaris-leucoagglutinin (PHA-L) from the midline/intralaminar/paraventricular thalamic nuclei. The use of a monoclonal ChAT antiserum against whole rat ChAT protein allowed for an optimal visualization of the small dendritic branches and fine varicose axons of cholinergic interneurons. PHA-L-labeled thalamic afferents were heterogeneously distributed throughout the core and shell regions of nAcb, overlapping regionally with cholinergic somata and dendrites. At the ultrastructural level, several hundred single-section profiles of PHA-L and ChAT-labeled axon terminals were analyzed for morphology, synaptic frequency, and the nature of their synaptic targets. The cholinergic profiles were small and apposed to various neuronal elements, but rarely exhibited a synaptic membrane specialization (5% in single ultrathin sections). Stereological extrapolation indicated that less than 15% of these cholinergic varicosities were synaptic. The PHA-L-labeled profiles were comparatively large and often synaptic (37% in single ultrathin sections), making asymmetrical contacts primarily with dendritic spines (>90%). Stereological extrapolation indicated that all PHA-L-labeled terminals were synaptic. In double-labeled material, some PHA-L-labeled terminals were directly apposed to ChAT-labeled somata or dendrites, but synapses were never seen between the two types of elements. These observations demonstrate that the cholinergic innervation of rat nAcb is largely asynaptic. They confirm that the afferents from midline/intralaminar/paraventricular thalamic nuclei to rat nAcb synapse mostly on dendritic spines, presumably of medium spiny neurons, and suggest that the excitatory drive of nAcb cholinergic interneurons from thalamus is indirect, either via substance P release from recurrent collaterals of medium spiny neurons and/or by extrasynaptic diffusion of glutamate.

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