Cerebrospinal fluid-contacting neurons (CSFcNs) occur in various brain regions of lower vertebrates. In mammals, they are restricted to medullospinal areas, and little is known about their projection sites. In the present work, we investigated some morphofunctional characteristics of such neurons in the rat spinal cord by light and electron microscopic immunocytochemistry. CSFcNs expressing the P2X(2) subunit of purinergic receptors were present throughout the spinal cord, though more numerous at lower thoracolumbar and sacral levels. These neurons coexpressed GAD and the polysialylated neural cell adhesion molecule (PSA-NCAM), a marker of cellular plasticity. From low thoracic levels downward, tiny amyelinic axons (less than 200 nm in diameter) were tightly packed in bundles, which ran along the ependyma and extended ventrally, eventually concentrating against the walls of the ventral median fissure. In addition to P2X(2), GAD, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and PSA, these axons expressed GAP-43 immunoreactivity. Moreover, they were labelled along their entire lengths with antibodies against synaptotagmin and synaptophysin, but these failed to reveal intraspinal terminal fields. Taken together, our observations indicate the presence in the rat spinal cord of a highly plastic system of GABAergic CSFcNs that express the P2X(2) subunit of purinergic receptors. The function of this original system remains open to question. In these neurons, the P2X(2) receptors may confer a sensitivity to ATP either present in the CSF or released by nearby neurons of the central autonomic area.
Copyright 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.