Knowledge of the molecular mechanisms underlying signaling of mechanical stimuli by muscle spindles remains incomplete. In particular, the ionic conductances that sustain tonic firing during static muscle stretch are unknown. We hypothesized that tonic firing by spindle afferents depends on sodium persistent inward current (INaP) and tested for the necessary presence of the appropriate voltage-gated sodium (NaV) channels in primary sensory endings. The NaV1.6 isoform was selected for both its capacity to produce INaP and for its presence in other mechanosensors that fire tonically. The present study shows that NaV1.6 immunoreactivity (IR) is concentrated in heminodes, presumably where tonic firing is generated, and we were surprised to find NaV1.6 IR strongly expressed also in the sensory terminals, where mechanotransduction occurs. This spatial pattern of NaV1.6 IR distribution was consistent for three mammalian species (rat, cat, and mouse), as was tonic firing by primary spindle afferents. These findings meet some of the conditions needed to establish participation of INaP in tonic firing by primary sensory endings. The study was extended to two additional NaV isoforms, selected for their sensitivity to TTX, excluding TTX-resistant NaV channels, which alone are insufficient to support firing by primary spindle endings. Positive immunoreactivity was found for NaV1.1, predominantly in sensory terminals together with NaV1.6 and for NaV1.7, mainly in preterminal axons. Differential distribution in primary sensory endings suggests specialized roles for these three NaV isoforms in the process of mechanosensory signaling by muscle spindles.NEW & NOTEWORTHY The molecular mechanisms underlying mechanosensory signaling responsible for proprioceptive functions are not completely elucidated. This study provides the first evidence that voltage-gated sodium channels (NaVs) are expressed in the spindle primary sensory ending, where NaVs are found at every site involved in transduction or encoding of muscle stretch. We propose that NaVs contribute to multiple steps in sensory signaling by muscle spindles as it does in other types of slowly adapting sensory neurons.
Keywords: immunohistochemistry; muscle spindle; sensory encoding; voltage-gated sodium channels.
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