Single dopaminergic nigrostriatal neurons form two chemically distinct synaptic types: possible transmitter segregation within neurons

J Comp Neurol. 1991 Jul 15;309(3):391-401. doi: 10.1002/cne.903090308.


These experiments were designed to examine a paradox present in the literature with regard to the fine structure of nigrostriatal dopamine terminals within the rat striatum. Previous studies have shown that anterograde transport of tritiated labeled proteins from the substantia nigra to the striatum over short survival times primarily labels asymmetric synapses (and that these asymmetric synapses are preferentially vulnerable to selective dopaminergic neurotoxins such as 6-hydroxydopamine). In contrast, fine structural immunohistochemical studies with antibodies to tyrosine hydroxylase and dopamine have consistently labeled primarily symmetric synapses en passant within the striatum. We have now confirmed that these two seemingly contradictory types of labeled synapses (radio- and immuno-labeled) can both be present, but most often separate from one another, in single ultrathin sections. However, we also found that radiolabeled unmyelinated axons were usually double-labeled by tyrosine hydroxylase immunohistochemistry. Employing longer survival times (10 days after the nigral isotope injections) in order to enhance the ratio of "en passant" to terminal labeling produced a large increase in the occurrence of radiolabeled striatal axonal varicosities with the result that many symmetric synapses en passant were double-labeled with both the autoradiographic and the immunohistochemical markers. Given that more than 95% of the nigrostriatal projection arises from dopamine fluorescent neurons, it would appear that both the asymmetric and symmetric terminals belong to the same type of neuron. Thus, we suggest that single dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra make two types of synaptic contact with striatal cells: 1) symmetric synapses en passant, which can be stained with tyrosine hydroxylase and dopamine and which contact dendritic spine necks, and 2) asymmetric terminal boutons of unknown chemical nature which end on dendritic spine heads. We conclude that both the asymmetric terminal and symmetric en passant synapses take origin from a single nigrostriatal dopaminergic neuronal population and that dopaminergic transmitter markers occur only in one of these synaptic types in the rat striatum.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axonal Transport
  • Corpus Striatum / anatomy & histology
  • Corpus Striatum / physiology
  • Corpus Striatum / ultrastructure*
  • Dopamine / physiology*
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Neurons / ultrastructure*
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred Strains
  • Substantia Nigra / anatomy & histology
  • Substantia Nigra / physiology
  • Substantia Nigra / ultrastructure*
  • Synapses / physiology
  • Synapses / ultrastructure*
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase / analysis*


  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase
  • Dopamine