The sensory neurons of the dorsal root ganglia (DRG) must project accurately to their central targets to convey proprioceptive, nociceptive and mechanoreceptive information to the spinal cord. How these different sensory modalities and central connectivities are specified and coordinated still remains unclear. Given the expression of the POU homeodomain transcription factors Brn3a/Pou4f1 and Brn3b/Pou4f2 in DRG and spinal cord sensory neurons, we determined the subtype specification of DRG and spinal cord sensory neurons as well as DRG central projections in Brn3a and Brn3b single and double mutant mice. Inactivation of either or both genes causes no gross abnormalities in early spinal cord neurogenesis; however, in Brn3a single and Brn3a;Brn3b double mutant mice, sensory afferent axons from the DRG fail to form normal trajectories in the spinal cord. The TrkA(+) afferents remain outside the dorsal horn and fail to extend into the spinal cord, while the projections of TrkC(+) proprioceptive afferents into the ventral horn are also impaired. Moreover, Brn3a mutant DRGs are defective in sensory neuron specification, as marked by the excessive generation of TrkB(+) and TrkC(+) neurons as well as TrkA(+)/TrkB(+) and TrkA(+)/TrkC(+) double positive cells at early embryonic stages. At later stages in the mutant, TrkB(+), TrkC(+) and parvalbumin(+) neurons diminish while there is a significant increase of CGRP(+) and c-ret(+) neurons. In addition, Brn3a mutant DRGs display a dramatic down-regulation of Runx1 expression, suggesting that the regulation of DRG sensory neuron specification by Brn3a is mediated in part by Runx1. Our results together demonstrate a critical role for Brn3a in generating DRG sensory neuron diversity and regulating sensory afferent projections to the central targets.
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