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Nicotinic acetylcholine receptor distribution in relation to spinal neurotransmission pathways



Neuronal nicotinic receptors (nAChR) are pentameric assemblies of subunits of a gene family where specified combinations of α and β subunits form functional receptors. To extend our understanding of the role of spinal nAChR in the processing of sensory stimuli and regulation of autonomic and motor responses, we initiated investigations to localize nAChR subunit expression within discrete spinal regions and cell types. High-affinity epibatidine binding was present in the superficial dorsal and ventral horns, the mediolateral and central canal regions. RT-PCR identified transcripts for α3, α4, α5, β2, and β4 in both spinal cord parenchyma and dorsal root ganglia (DRG). Our affinity-purified antibodies against α3, α4, α5, β2, and β4 subunits identified specific protein bands of appropriate molecular mass (preadsorbed with the respective antigens) in specific tissues and cells that express nicotinic receptors, including the spinal cord and DRG neurons. Having established the absence of crossreactivity with related subunits, specific fluorescence labeling of nerve terminals and cell bodies was achieved and correlated with the distribution of defined marker proteins and nicotinic receptor binding sites determined autoradiographically. Our findings indicate that α3, α4, α5, β2, and β4 subunits are all expressed on primary afferents (IB4-positive terminals) in the spinal cord. The predominant presynaptic (synaptophysin colocalization) labeling is in the superficial layer of the dorsal horn. These receptor subunits, except for β4, are also present in postsynaptic autonomic (anti-bNOS-positive) and somatic motor neurons (anti-VAChT-positive). The α3, α5, and β2 subunits showed additional staining in glial (anti-GFAP-positive) cells. These studies reveal a dense and distinguishable distribution of nAChR subunits in the spinal cord and point toward future therapeutic targeting for specific spinal actions. J. Comp. Neurol. 467:44–59, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.