Dopamine-containing projections from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to the prefrontal cortex (PFC) have been extensively characterized since their discovery over 25 years ago. However, the VTA projection to the PFC also contains a substantial nondopamine component, whose neurochemical phenotype is unknown. To examine if a portion of this nondopamine VTA projection contains GABA, anterograde and retrograde tract-tracing in the rat was combined with GABA immunocytochemistry and electron microscopy. Following injections of Fluoro-Gold (FG) into the PFC, many VTA neurons were retrogradely labeled, as visualized by immunoperoxidase staining for FG. A large portion of FG-labeled somata (58%) and dendrites (33%) within the VTA also contained immunogold-silver labeling for GABA. These dually labeled profiles exhibited a morphology similar to dopamine-containing cells within the VTA. To confirm and extend these findings, anterograde transport of biotinylated dextran amine (BDA) from the VTA was combined with immunogold-silver labeling for GABA within the PFC. Consistent with the results obtained from retrograde tracing, a portion of BDA-labeled terminals in the PFC also contained immunoreactivity for GABA. These dually labeled terminals formed symmetric synapses onto small caliber dendrites and dendritic spines. Some PFC dendrites contacted by GABA-containing VTA terminals were themselves GABA-labeled. The results of this investigation have identified a substantial population of GABA-containing neurons in the VTA that send axons to the PFC where they synapse on the distal processes of both pyramidal and local circuit neurons. This GABA-containing mesocortical pathway may provide substrates for both inhibitory and disinhibitory influences on PFC neuronal activity.
Copyright 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.