Like other marsupials, the opossum Monodelphis domestica is born very immature and crawls, unaided by the mother, from the urogenital opening to a nipple where it attaches and pursues its development. If the alternate, rhythmic movements of the forelimbs which allow this locomotion are generated by the developing spinal motor networks, sensory information is nonetheless needed to guide the newborn to a nipple. Behavioral, anatomical and physiological studies suggest that the auditory and the visual systems are insufficiently developed in newborn opossums to influence spinal motor centers, while the vestibular, trigeminal, and olfactory systems are likelier candidates. The trigeminal, vestibular and olfactory regions of the brain were electrically stimulated to test their relative effectiveness at eliciting forelimb movement in newborn opossums, using in vitro preparations of brain-spinal cord with the limbs attached. The minimal stimulation of the cervical spinal cord needed to induce forelimb movement was considered as threshold (T). Stimulations of the trigeminal ganglion (5G) at ∼2T and of the vestibular complex at ∼20T could induce the same movement, and were not statistically different, in contrast to the ∼600T necessary for the olfactory bulb (OB). Neurofilament-200 immunohistochemistry and retrograde tracing with Texas-Red conjugated Dextran Amines were used to study trigeminal innervation of the facial skin and pathways by which trigeminal inputs may be relayed to the spinal cord. Numerous nerve fibers were observed in the snout dermis, especially in the maxillary region, but also elsewhere in the head skin. Some 5G cells project to the upper spinal cord, but more project to the caudal medulla where they could contact secondary trigeminal neurons or reticular cells projecting to the spinal cord. These results support a significant influence of the trigeminal and the vestibular systems, but not of olfaction, on forelimb movement of neonatal opossums.
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