• larynx;
  • nucleus ambiguus;
  • peripheral nerve injury;
  • somatotopy


Motoneurons innervating laryngeal muscles are located in the nucleus ambiguus (Amb), but there is no general agreement on the somatotopic representation and even less is known on how an injury in the recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN) affects this pattern. This study analyzes the normal somatotopy of those motoneurons and describes its changes over time after a crush injury to the RLN. In the control group (control group 1, n = 9 rats), the posterior cricoarytenoid (PCA) and thyroarytenoid (TA) muscles were injected with cholera toxin-B. In the experimental groups the left RLN of each animal was crushed with a fine tip forceps and, after several survival periods (1, 2, 4, 8, 12 weeks; minimum six rats per time), the PCA and TA muscles were injected as described above. After each surgery, the motility of the vocal folds was evaluated. Additional control experiments were performed; the second control experiment (control group 2, n = 6 rats) was performed labeling the TA and PCA immediately prior to the section of the superior laryngeal nerve (SLN), in order to eliminate the possibility of accidental labeling of the cricothyroid (CT) muscle by spread from the injection site. The third control group (control group 3, n = 5 rats) was included to determine if there is some sprouting from the SLN into the territories of the RLN after a crush of this last nerve. One week after the crush injury of the RLN, the PCA and TA muscles were injected immediately before the section of the SLN. The results show that a single population of neurons represents each muscle with the PCA in the most rostral position followed caudalwards by the TA. One week post-RLN injury, both the somatotopy and the number of labeled motoneurons changed, where the labeled neurons were distributed randomly; in addition, an area of topographical overlap of the two populations was observed and vocal fold mobility was lost. In the rest of the survival periods, the overlapping area is larger, but the movement of the vocal folds tends to recover. After 12 weeks of survival, the disorganization within the Amb is the largest, but the number of motoneurons is similar to control, and all animals recovered the movement of the left vocal fold. Our additional controls indicate that no tracer spread to the CT muscle occurred, and that many of the labeled motoneurons from the PCA after 1 week post-RLN injury correspond to motoneurons whose axons travel in the SLN. Therefore, it seems that after RLN injury there is a collateral sprouting and collateral innervation. Although the somatotopic organization of the Amb is lost after a crush injury of the RLN and does not recover in the times studied here, the movement of the vocal folds as well as the number of neurons that supply the TA and the PCA muscles recovered within 8 weeks, indicating that the central nervous system of the rat has a great capacity of plasticity.