Corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) is a 41 amino acid neuropeptide that coordinates adaptive responses to stress. CRF projections from neurons in the central nucleus of the amygdala (CeA) to the brainstem are of particular interest for their role in motivated behavior. To directly examine the anatomy and function of CRF neurons, we generated a BAC transgenic Crh-Cre rat in which bacterial Cre recombinase is expressed from the Crh promoter. Using Cre-dependent reporters, we found that Cre expressing neurons in these rats are immunoreactive for CRF and are clustered in the lateral CeA (CeL) and the oval nucleus of the BNST. We detected major projections from CeA CRF neurons to parabrachial nuclei and the locus coeruleus, dorsal and ventral BNST, and more minor projections to lateral portions of the substantia nigra, ventral tegmental area, and lateral hypothalamus. Optogenetic stimulation of CeA CRF neurons evoked GABA-ergic responses in 11% of non-CRF neurons in the medial CeA (CeM) and 44% of non-CRF neurons in the CeL. Chemogenetic stimulation of CeA CRF neurons induced Fos in a similar proportion of non-CRF CeM neurons but a smaller proportion of non-CRF CeL neurons. The CRF1 receptor antagonist R121919 reduced this Fos induction by two-thirds in these regions. These results indicate that CeL CRF neurons provide both local inhibitory GABA and excitatory CRF signals to other CeA neurons, and demonstrate the value of the Crh-Cre rat as a tool for studying circuit function and physiology of CRF neurons.
Keywords: CRF; Cre recombinase; Fos; R121919; central amygdala; channelrhodopsin-2; designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs; transgenic rat models.