Catecholamine innervation of the human cerebral cortex as revealed by comparative immunohistochemistry of tyrosine hydroxylase and dopamine-beta-hydroxylase



The organization of the cortical monoamine systems, dopamine (DA), and noradrenaline (NA), which have been studied extensively in the rat and more recently in the monkey, had not yet been investigated directly in the human brain. We report here the first systematic account of the regional and laminar distributions of the catecholamine fibers in the human cerebral cortex, using immunohistochemistry of the catecholamine biosynthetic enzymes, tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), and dopamine-β-hydroxylase (DBH) in 13 cytoarchitectonic areas (4, 6, 9, 3b, 5, 40, 17, 18, 23, 24, 29, insula, and hippocampus) sampled postmortem.

The noradrenergic (NA) innervation, mapped with DBH-immunoreactivity (DBH-IR), displayed a characteristic density gradient in the neocortex (highest in the primary sensorimotor areas, decreasing rostrally and caudally) that contrasted with the more uniform density in the limbic cortices (24, 23, 29, insula, hippocampus). NA axons were present in all cortical layers and were least numerous in layer I. The DBH-IR fibers were only partly TH-immunostained (10–50%, on double-labeled sections), suggesting a heterogeneity of the cortical NA axons.

The putative dopaminergic (DA) fibers were identified by comparing alternate or double-immunolabeled (DBH-TH) sections, as the TH-IR fibers which contain no DBH-IR. A DA-like innervation was present in all cortical areas, with major regional differences in density and laminar distribution, which closely paralleled cytoarchitectural buildups: (1) the DA-like innervation was densest in the agranular areas, primary and secondary motor areas, anterior cingulate, and insula; it distributed throughout layers I–VI; (2) density was lower in the granular cortices, areas 9 (prefrontal cortex), 23, 3b, 5, 40, and 18, displaying a bilaminar pattern in layers I and V–VI. In all areas, DA-like fibers were most abundant in the molecular layer, with a predominant distribution in its deepest part. Convoluted and coily fibers represented a unique morphologic aspect of the CA innervation in the human cortex.

These findings are in agreement with findings in nonhuman primates and demonstrate major evolutionary changes in the organization of the cortical aminergic input as compared with rodents. The most striking features are the expansion of the DA innervation to the whole cortex and the peak of highest density in the motor areas. The regional differentiation of NA innervation is also accentuated. Slight differences were found in the laminar distributions of the amines in humans and primates. These data seem quite promising and open new research fields in neurologic and psychiatric diseases.