A monoclonal antibody to choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) has been used in an immunocytochemical study of the postnatal development of ChAT-containing neurons in cervical and thoracic spinal cord. Specimens from rat pups ranging in age from 1 to 28 days postnatal (dpn) were studied and compared with adult specimens (Barber et al., '84). The development of established cholinergic neurons, the somatic motoneurons and sympathetic preganglionic cells, has been described as has that of previously unidentified ChAT-positive neurons in the dorsal, intermediate, and central gray matter.
Cell bodies of somatic and visceral motoneurons contained moderate amounts of ChAT-positive reaction product at birth that gradually increased in intensity until 14–21 dpn. The most intensely stained ChAT-positive neurons in 1–5-dpn specimens were named partition cells because this cell group extended from the central gray to an area dorsal to the lateral motoneurons, and thereby divided the spinal cord into dorsal and ventral halves. Partition cells were medium to large in size with 5–7 primary dendrites, and axons that, in fortuitous sections, could be traced into the ventrolateral motoneuron pools, the ventral funiculi, or the ventral commissure. Small ChAT-positive cells clustered around the central canal and scattered in laminae III–VI of the dorsal horn were detectable at birth. These neurons were moderately immunoreactive at 11–14 dpn and intensely ChAT positive by 21 dpn. The band of ChAT-positive terminal-like structures demonstrated in lamina III of adult specimens (Barber et al., '84) was first visible in 11–14-dpn specimens. By 28 dpn, both laminae I and III contained punctate bands that approximated the density of those observed in adult spinal cord.
This investigation has demonstrated ChAT within individual neurons of developing spinal cord, and has identified a group of neurons, the partition cells, that exhibit intense ChAT-positive immunoreactivity earlier than any other putative cholinergic cells in spinal cord, including motoneurons. Another important observation has been that each ChAT-positive neuronal type achieves adult levels of staining intensity at different times during development. A likely explanation for this differential staining is that various groups of neurons acquire their mature concentration of ChAT molecules at different developmental stages. In turn, this may correlate with the maturation of cholinergic synaptic activity manifest by individual cells or groups of neurons.