Direct projections from the forebrain to the nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS) and dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus in the rat medulla were mapped in detail using both retrograde axonal transport of the fluorescent tracer True Blue and anterograde axonal transport of wheat germ agglutinin conjugated to horseradish peroxidase (WGA-HRP). In the retrograde tracing studies, cell groups in the medial prefrontal cortex, lateral prefrontal cortex (primarily ventral and posterior agranular insular cortex), bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, central nucleus of the amygdala, paraventricular, arcuate, and posterolateral areas of the hypothalamus were shown to project to the NTS and in some cases also to the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus. The prefrontal cortical areas projecting to the NTS apparently overlap to a large degree with those cortical areas receiving mediodorsal thalamic and dopaminergic input. The retrogradely labeled cortical cells were situated in deep layers of the rat prefrontal cortex.
The anterograde tracing studies revealed a prominent topography in the mediolateral termination pattern of forebrain projections to the rostral part of the NTS and to the dorsal pons. The projections to the NTS were generally bilateral, except for projections from the central nucleus of the amygdala and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis which were predominantly ipsilateral. The prefrontal cortical projections to the NTS travel through the cerebral peduncle and pyramidal tract and terminate throughout the rostrocaudal extent of the NTS. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex innervates dorsal portions of the NTS (lateral part of the dorsal division of the medial solitary nucleus, dorsal part of the lateral solitary nucleus and the caudal midline region of the commissural nucleus), areas which receive relatively sparse subcortical projections. These dorsal portions of the NTS receive major primary afferent projections from the vagal and glossopharyngeal nerves. In contrast, the subcortical projections, which travel through the midbrain and pontine tegmentum, terminate most heavily in the ventral portions of the NTS, i.e., the area immediately dorsal and lateral to the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus. Only the paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus has substantial terminals throughout the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus. Hypothalamic cell groups innervate the area postrema and, along with the prefrontal cortex, innervate the zone subjacent to the area postrema.
We suggest that direct projections to the NTS and dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus are one criterion that can be used to define the visceral fore-brain. The organization of the forebrain terminations in the solitary complex described here may eventually allow a better understanding of how the brain controls visceral function.