Serotonin axon terminals in the ventral tegmental area of the rat: fine structure and synaptic input to dopaminergic neurons

Brain Res. 1987 Dec 1;435(1-2):71-83. doi: 10.1016/0006-8993(87)91588-5.


The serotoninergic (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT) innervation of the rat ventral tegmental area (VTA) was examined by light and electron microscopic radioautography following intraventricular infusion of [3H]5-HT. The [3H]5-HT labeled processes were characterized with respect to their regional distribution, ultrastructure and relationships with all neurons, including dopaminergic neurons, identified in the same sections using immunocytochemistry for the localization of the catecholamine-synthesizing enzyme, tyrosine hydroxylase (TH). By light microscopy, [3H]5-HT labeled axons and axonal varicosities were detected throughout the interfascicular nucleus and ventral portion of the VTA. By electron microscopy, [3H]5-HT-labeled axons were found to be mainly small and unmyelinated, although a few showed several lamellae of myelin. The labeled varicosities measured 0.6 micron in mean diameter and contained many small, round or flattened agranular vesicles and a few large granular vesicles. More than 18% showed synaptic specializations in single thin sections. Most of these synapses were asymmetric and established on dendritic shafts. Based on the probability of seeing such synaptic specializations in single thin sections, it was estimated that as many as 50% of the labeled 5-HT terminals formed synaptic contacts in the VTA. In dually labeled light microscopic sections, [3H]5-HT-accumulating processes often appeared adjacent to TH-immunoreactive perikarya and proximal dendrites. Electron microscopy demonstrated that terminals with radioautographic labeling for 5-HT formed conventional synapses both with TH-labeled and unlabeled dendrites in the VTA. Many additional 5-HT terminals lacking recognizable synaptic densities were directly apposed to TH-labeled dendrites and were isolated from the rest of the neuropil by thin glial leaflets. These results suggest that 5-HT neurons innervate both dopaminergic and non-dopaminergic neurons in the VTA and may influence mesocortical and mesolimbic efferent systems through synaptic as well as non-synaptic mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoradiography
  • Axons / ultrastructure*
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Neurons / ultrastructure
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred Strains
  • Serotonin / metabolism*
  • Synapses / cytology
  • Synapses / ultrastructure*
  • Tegmentum Mesencephali / cytology
  • Tegmentum Mesencephali / ultrastructure*
  • Tritium
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase / metabolism


  • Tritium
  • Serotonin
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase
  • Dopamine