The system of cerebrospinal fluid-contacting neurons. Its supposed role in the nonsynaptic signal transmission of the brain

Histol Histopathol. 2004 Apr;19(2):607-28. doi: 10.14670/HH-19.607.


Recent investigations confirm the importance of nonsynaptic signal transmission in several functions of the nervous tissue. Present in various periventricular brain regions of vertebrates, the system of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)-contacting neurons seems to have a special role in taking up, transforming and emitting nonsynaptic signals mediated by the internal and external CSF and intercellular fluid of the brain. Most of the CSF-contacting nerve cells send dendritic processes into the internal CSF of the brain ventricles or central canal where they form terminals bearing stereocilia and a 9+0-, or 9+2-type cilium. Some of these neurons resemble known sensory cells of chemoreceptor-type, others may be sensitive to the pressure or flow of the CSF, or to the illumination of the brain tissue. The axons of the CSF-contacting neurons transmit information taken up by dendrites and perikarya to synaptic zones of various brain areas. By forming neurohormonal terminals, axons also contact the external CSF space and release various bioactive substances there. Some perikarya send their axons into the internal CSF, and form free endings there, or synapses on intraventricular dendrites, perikarya and/or on the ventricular surface of ependymal cells. Contacting the intercellular space, sensory-type cilia were also demonstrated on nerve cells situated in the brain tissue subependymally or farther away from the ventricles. Among neuronal elements entering the internal CSF-space, the hypothalamic CSF-contacting neurons are present in the magnocellular and parvicellular nuclei and in some circumventricular organs like the paraventricular organ and the vascular sac. The CSF-contacting dendrites of all these areas bear a solitary 9 x 2+0-type cilium and resemble chemoreceptors cytologically. In electrophysiological experiments, the neurons of the paraventricular organ are highly sensitive to the composition of the ventricular CSF. The axons of the CSF-contacting neurons terminate not only in the hypothalamic synaptic zones but also in tel-, mes- and rhombencephalic nuclei and reach the spinal cord as well. The supposed chemical information taken up by the CSF-contacting neurons from the ventricular CSF may influence the function of these areas of the central nervous system. Some nerve cells of the photoreceptor areas form sensory terminals similar to those of the hypothalamic CSF-contacting neurons. Special secondary neurons of the retina and pineal organ contact the retinal photoreceptor space and pineal recess respectively, both cavities being embryologically derived from the 3rd ventricle. The composition of these photoreceptor spaces is important in the photochemical transduction and may modify the activity of the secondary neurons. Septal and preoptic CSF-contacting neurons contain various opsins and other compounds of the phototransduction cascade and represent deep encephalic photoreceptors detecting the illumination of the brain tissue and play a role in the regulation of circadian and reproductive responses to light. The medullo-spinal CSF-contacting neurons present in the oblongate medulla, spinal cord and terminal filum, send their dendrites into the fourth ventricle and central canal. Resembling mechanoreceptors of the lateral line organ, the spinal CSF-contacting neurons may be sensitive to the pressure or flow of the CSF. The axons of these neurons terminate at the external CSF-space of the oblongate medulla and spinal cord and form neurohormonal nerve endings. Based on information taken up from the CSF, a regulatory effect on the production or composition of CSF was supposed for bioactive materials released by these terminals. Most of the axons of the medullospinal CSF-contacting neurons and the magno- and parvicellular neurosecretory nuclei running to neurohemal areas (neurohypophysis, median eminence, terminal lamina, vascular sac and urophysis) do not terminate directly on vessels, instead they form neurohormonal nerve terminals attached by half-desmosomes on the basal lamina of the external and vascular surface of the brain tissue. Therefore, the bioactive materials released from these terminals primarily enter the external CSF and secondarily, by diffusion into vessels and the composition of the external CSF, may have a modulatory effect on the bioactive substances released by the neurohormonal terminals. Contacting the intercellular space, sensory-type cilia were also demonstrated on nerve cells situated subependymally or farther away from the ventricles, among others in the neurosecretory nuclei. Since tight-junctions are lacking between ependymal cells of the ventricular wall, not only CSF-contacting but also subependymal ciliated neurons may be influenced by the actual composition of the CSF besides that of the intercellular fluid of the brain tissue. According to the comparative histological data summarised in this review, the ventricular CSF-contacting neurons represent the phylogenetically oldest component detecting the internal fluid milieu of the brain. The neurohormonal terminals on the external surface of the brain equally represent an ancient form of nonsynaptic signal transmission.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / metabolism
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain / ultrastructure
  • Cell Nucleus / metabolism
  • Cerebrospinal Fluid / metabolism*
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Lampreys
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Models, Anatomic
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Neurons / ultrastructure
  • Synapses / metabolism*