• Keywords: acetylcholine;
  • dopamine;
  • habenula;
  • ion channel;
  • locus coeruleus;
  • substantia nigra


Although the neuronal nicotinic receptor a6 subunit was cloned several years ago, its functional significance remains to be investigated. Here we describe an in situ hybridization study of the mRNA for this subunit in the adult rat central nervous system using oligonucleotide probes. Specific a6 mRNA labelling was restricted to a few nuclei throughout the brain; it was particularly high in several catecholaminergic nuclei [the locus coeruleus (A6), the ventral tegmental area (A10) and the substantia nigra (A9)] at levels significantly higher than those found for any other known nicotinic receptor subunit mRNA. Labelling for a6 mRNA was also detected at lower levels in the reticular thalamic nucleus, the supramammillary nucleus and the mesencephalic V nucleus. Some cells of the medial habenula (medioventral part) and of the interpeduncular nucleus (central and lateral parts) were also labelled. The distribution of a6 mRNA was compared with the distribution of the other known nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subunit mRNAs. In several nuclei, the expression of a6 was complementary to those of other a subunits. Moreover, some of the cell groups (such as the substantia nigra, the ventral tegmental area and the locus coeruleus) previously thought to contain mainly a3 mRNA in fact were found to contain high levels of α6 mRNA. Finally, we found extensive colocalization of α6 and p3, indicating the possible existence of nicotinic receptor hetero-oligomers containing both subunits. The present results show that a6 is the major nicotinic acetylcholine receptor a subunit expressed in dopaminergic cell groups of the mesencephalon and noradrenergic cells of the locus coeruleus. This suggests the involvement of the a6 subunit in some of the major functions of central nicotinic circuits, including the modulation of locomotor behaviour and reward.