Gustatory terminal field organization and developmental plasticity in the nucleus of the solitary tract revealed through triple-fluorescence labeling

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Early dietary sodium restriction has profound influences on the organization of the gustatory brainstem. However, the anatomical relationships among multiple gustatory nerve inputs have not been examined. Through the use of triple-fluorescence labeling and confocal laser microscopy, terminal fields of the greater superficial petrosal (GSP), chorda tympani (CT), and glossopharyngeal (IX) nerves were visualized concurrently in the nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS) of developmentally sodium-restricted and control rats. Dietary sodium restriction during pre- and postnatal development resulted in a twofold increase in the volume of both the CT and the IX nerve terminal fields but did not affect the volume of the GSP terminal field. In controls, these nerve terminal fields overlapped considerably. The dietary manipulation significantly increased the overlapping zones among terminal fields, resulting in an extension of CT and IX fields past their normal boundaries. The differences in terminal field volumes were exaggerated when expressed relative to the respective NTS volumes. Furthermore, increased terminal field volumes could not be attributed to an increase in the number of afferents because ganglion cell counts did not differ between groups. Taken together, selective increases in terminal field volume and ensuing overlap among terminal fields suggest an increased convergence of these gustatory nerve terminals onto neurons in the NTS. The genesis of such convergence is likely related to disruption of cellular and molecular mechanisms during the development of individual terminal fields, the consequences of which have implications for corresponding functional and behavioral alterations.

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