The present experiments were designed to determine the effect that lesions of the basal forebrain cholinergic system exert on cholinergic interneurons within the entorhinal cortex (EC) in the rat. Unilateral infusion of 192 IgG-saporin into the nucleus of the horizontal diagonal band of Broca (HDB) decreased the number of ipsilateral choline acetyltransferase immunoreactive (ChAT-ir) neurons by 54%. Two–four weeks after the lesion, the ipsilateral EC exhibited a moderate but significant loss of ChAT-ir fibres and interneurons. Adjacent sections revealed a parallel loss of vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP) immunoreactivity. Cell counts in the cingulate cortex were unaffected, suggesting that this effect was indeed specific to the main target area for HDB neurons. Ibotenic acid lesions also induced a significant 36% decrease in the number of cholinergic neurons in the ipsilateral HDB, and disappearance of ChAT terminals in the EC, whereas the number of ChAT-ir neurons in the EC was unchanged. Since ibotenic acid affects all cells and not only cholinergic ones, our results suggest that the specific degeneration of cholinergic neurons in the HDB after 192 IgG-saporin treatment could be inducing transsynaptic effects on their targets. Injections of 192 IgG-saporin directly into the EC also lesioned the cholinergic projection from the HDB, but had no effect on the intrinsic population.
Eight weeks after immunolesion, the number of interneurons immunoreactive for ChAT and VIP in the EC had returned to normal values, and persisted for as long as 6 months after the lesion. By contrast, ChAT-ir neurons in the HDB were permanently lost.
Our results suggest that the transient down-regulation of the cholinergic phenotype in entorhinal cortex interneurons could be a manifestation of activity-dependent plasticity, and that the loss of cholinergic innervation from the basal forebrain could be responsible for these effects through an imbalance of inputs. We hypothesize that the recovery of the phenotypic expression of entorhinal interneurons could be due to a recovery in their innervation, perhaps from sprouting axons in the same fields, belonging to surviving cholinergic neurons in the basal forebrain.