Cervical Prephrenic Interneurons in the Normal and Lesioned Spinal Cord of the Adult Rat

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Abstract

Although monosynaptic bulbospinal projections to phrenic motoneurons have been extensively described, little is known about the organization of phrenic premotor neurons in the adult rat spinal cord. Because interneurons may play an important role in normal breathing and recovery following spinal cord injury, the present study has used anterograde and transneuronal retrograde tracing to study their distribution and synaptic relations. Exclusive unilateral, first-order labeling of the phrenic motoneuron pool with pseudorabies virus demonstrated a substantial number of second-order, bilaterally distributed cervical interneurons predominantly in the dorsal horn and around the central canal. Combined transneuronal and anterograde tracing revealed ventral respiratory column projections to prephrenic interneurons, suggesting that some propriospinal relays exist between medullary neurons and the phrenic nucleus. Dual-labeling studies with pseudorabies virus recombinants also showed prephrenic interneurons integrated with either contralateral phrenic or intercostal motoneuron pools. The stability of interneuronal pseudorabies virus labeling patterns following lateral cervical hemisection was then addressed. Except for fewer infected contralateral interneurons at the level of the central canal, the number and distribution of phrenic-associated interneurons was not significantly altered 2 weeks posthemisection (i.e., the point at which the earliest postinjury recovery of phrenic activity has been reported). These results demonstrate a heterogeneous population of phrenic-related interneurons. Their connectivity and relative stability after cervical hemisection raise speculation for potentially diverse roles in modulating phrenic function normally and postinjury.

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