A method for determining the length of acetylcholine (ACh) axons and number of ACh axon varicosities (terminals) in brain sections immunostained for choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) was used to estimate the areal and laminar densities of this innervation in the frontal (motor), parietal (somatosensory), and occipital (visual) cortex of adult rat. The number of ACh varicosities per length of axon (4 per 10 microm) appeared constant in the different layers and areas. The mean density of ACh axons was the highest in the frontal cortex (13.0 m/mm(3) vs. 9.9 and 11.0 m/mm(3) in the somatosensory and visual cortex, respectively), as was the mean density of ACh varicosities (5.4 x 10(6)/mm(3) vs. 3.8 and 4.6 x 10(6)/mm(3)). In all three areas, layer I displayed the highest laminar densities of ACh axons and varicosities (e.g., 13.5 m/mm(3) and 5.4 x 10(6)/mm(3) in frontal cortex). The lowest were those of layer IV in the parietal cortex (7.3 m/mm(3) and 2.9 x 10(6)/mm(3)). The lengths of ACh axons under a 1 mm(2) surface of cortex were 26.7, 19.7, and 15.3 m in the frontal, parietal, and occipital areas, respectively, for corresponding numbers of 11.1, 7.7, and 6.4 x 10(6) ACh varicosities. In the parietal cortex, this meant a total of 1.2 x 10(6) synaptic ACh varicosities under a 1 mm(2) surface, 48% of which in layer V alone, according to previous electron microscopic estimates of synaptic incidence. In keeping with the notion that the synaptic component of ACh transmission in cerebral cortex is preponderant in layer V, these quantitative data suggest a role for this innervation in the processing of cortical output as well as input. Extrapolation of particular features of this system in terms of total axon length and number of varicosities in whole cortex, length of axons and number of varicosities per cortically projecting neuron, and concentration of ACh per axon varicosity, should also help in arriving at a better definition of its roles and functional properties in cerebral cortex.
Copyright 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.