In normal aging, the mammalian cortex undergoes significant remodeling. Although neuromodulation by dopamine and noradrenaline in the cortex is known to be important for proper cognitive function, little is known on how cortical noradrenergic and dopaminergic presynaptic boutons are affected in normal aging. Using rats we investigated whether these two neurotransmitter systems undergo structural reorganization in aging, and if these changes correlated with cognitive loss. Young and aged rats were tested for cognitive performance using the Morris water maze. Following the behavioral characterization, the animals were sacrificed and the cortical tissue was processed for immunofluorescence using antibodies directed against tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) and dopamine beta-hydroxylase (DBH) to detect and discriminate noradrenergic and dopaminergic varicosities. We observed a significant increase in dopaminergic varicosities in lamina V of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of aged cognitively unimpaired rats when compared to young and aged-impaired animals. In laminae II and III of the ACC, we observed a significant decrease of dopaminergic varicosities in aged-impaired animals when compared to young or aged cognitively unimpaired animals. Changes in noradrenergic varicosities never reached statistical significance in any group or brain region. The data suggests that the remodeling of mesocortical dopaminergic fibers may participate in age-associated cognitive decline.
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