Physiological and pharmacological studies indicate that descending projections from the prefrontal cortex modulate dopaminergic transmission in the nucleus accumbens septi and ventral tegmental area. We investigated the ultrastructural bases for these interactions in rat by examining the synaptic associations between prefrontal cortical terminals labeled with anterograde markers (lesion-induced degeneration or transport of Phaseolus vulgaris leucoagglutinin; PHA-L) and neuronal processes containing immunoreactivity for the catecholamine synthesizing enzyme, tryosine hydroxylase.
Prefrontal cortical terminals in the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area contained clear, round vesicles and formed primarily asymmetric synapses on spines or small dendrites. In the ventral tegmental area, these terminals also formed asymmetric synapses on large dendrites and a few symmetric axodendritic synapses. In the nucleus accumbens septi, degenerating prefrontal cortical terminals synapsed on spiny dendrites which received convergent input from terminals containing peroxidase immunoreactivity for tyrosine hydroxylase, or from unlabeled terminals. In single sections, some tyrosine hydroxylase-labeled terminals formed thin and punctate symmetric synapses with dendritic shafts, or the heads and necks of spines. Close appositions, but not axo-axonic synapses, were frequently observed between degenerating prefrontal cortical afferents and tyrosine hydroxylase-labeled or unlabeled terminals. In the ventral tegmental area, prefrontal cortical terminals labeled with immunoperoxidase for PHA-L were in synaptic contact with dendrites containing immunogold reaction product for tyrosine hydroxylase, or with unlabeled dendrites.
These results suggest that: (1) catecholaminergic (mainly dopaminergic) and prefrontal cortical terminals in the nucleus accumbens septi dually synapse on common spiny neurons; and (2) dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area receive monosynaptic input from prefrontal cortical afferents. This study provides the first ultrastructural basis for multiple sites of cellular interaction between prefrontal cortical efferents and mesolimbic dopaminergic neurons.