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Keywords:

  • cavernosal nerve;
  • erectile function;
  • neuropathy;
  • nitric oxide synthetase;
  • electrophysiology;
  • ultrastructure

OBJECTIVE

To illustrate the ultrastructural fibre composition of the rat cavernosal nerve at serial levels, from its origin in the main pelvic ganglion to its termination in the corpus cavernosum of the distal penile shaft, and to develop a technique that permits repeated electrophysiological recording from the fibres that form the cavernosal nerve distinct from the axons of the dorsal nerve of the penis (DNP).

MATERIALS AND METHODS

For the light microscope and ultrastructural studies, Sprague–Dawley rats were anaesthetized and the pelvic organs and lower limbs were perfused with glutaraldehyde through the distal aorta. Tissue samples were embedded in epoxy resin and prepared for light and electron microscopy. Frozen tissue was used for the immunohistochemical studies and sections were stained with rabbit anti-nitric oxide synthetase 1 (NOS1). For the electrophysiology, anaesthetized rats were used in sterile conditions. Nerve conduction velocity for the cavernosal nerve was assessed from a point 2 mm below the main (major) pelvic ganglion after stimulating the nerve at the crus penis; multi-unit averaging techniques were used to enhance the recording of slow-conduction activity. Recordings from the DNP were obtained over the proximal shaft after stimulation at the base of the penis.

RESULTS

Step-serial sections of the cavernosal nerve revealed numerous ganglion cells in the initial segments and gradually fewer myelinated fibres at distal levels. At the point of crural entry, the nerve contained almost exclusively unmyelinated axons. As it descended the penile shaft, the nerve separated into small fascicles containing only one to four axons at the level of the distal shaft. In the corpus cavernosum, vesicle-filled presynaptic axon preterminals were close to smooth muscle fibres, but did not seem to be in direct contact. Immunohistochemical evaluation of NOS1 activity showed intense staining of the fibres of the DNP and most of the neurones in the main pelvic ganglion. There was also scattered NOS1 activity in the nerve bundles of the corpus cavernosum. Electrophysiology identified activity in C fibres on the cavernosal nerve and in Aα–Aδ fibres in the DNP.

CONCLUSION

These results show that it is possible to perform integrated cavernosal pressure monitoring and ultrastructural and electrophysiological studies in this model. These yielded accurate data about the erectile status of the penis, and the state of unmyelinated and myelinated fibres in the DNP and cavernosal nerves of the same animal. This study provides a useful template for future studies of experimental diabetic autonomic neuropathy.