Recent studies of the freshwater planarian Dugesia japonica have revealed fundamental mechanisms and unique aspects of neuroscience and neuroregeneration. Here, we identified the gene for planarian choline acetyltransferase (Djchat), which is essential for acetylcholine (ACh) biosynthesis. Immunofluorescence studies using anti-Dugesia japonica ChAT (DjChAT) antibody revealed that cholinergic neurons are widely distributed in the planarian nervous system, including the brain, ventral nerve cords, optic nerves, and pharyngeal nerve plexus. In order to investigate the function of cholinergic neurons in planarians, we used both pharmacological and RNA interference (RNAi) approaches. Administration of physostigmine (an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor) clearly elevated the amount of ACh, and then induced sudden muscle contraction behavior in a concentration-dependent manner. In addition, we found that pretreatment with tubocurarine (a muscle nicotinic ACh receptor antagonist) or atropine (a non-selective muscarinic ACh receptor antagonist), but not pretreatment with mecamylamine (a neural nicotinic ACh receptor antagonist), significantly extended the latency time for physostigmine-induced contraction behavior, suggesting that muscle nicotinic ACh receptors and muscarinic ACh receptors contribute to physostigmine-induced contraction behavior. We also confirmed that ACh biosynthesis ability and DjChAT-immunoreactivity were eliminated in Djchat(RNAi) planarians. Moreover, the decrease of the level of ACh induced by Djchat(RNAi) caused extension of the latency time for contraction behavior. Our findings support the possibility that the cholinergic functions of planarians are similar to those of vertebrates, suggesting that planarians are simple but useful model organisms for getting insight into the cholinergic nervous system in higher animals.
2010 IBRO. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.