Evidence for neurotransmitter plasticity in vivo: developmental changes in properties of cholinergic sympathetic neurons

Dev Biol. 1983 Aug;98(2):349-72. doi: 10.1016/0012-1606(83)90365-2.


We have examined the cholinergic sympathetic innervation of sweat glands in footpads of adult and developing rats. Acetylcholinesterase staining reveals a plexus of heavily stained fibers in the sweat glands of adult rats. Reaction product appears among and around bundles of axons that lie at a considerable distance from the cells of the secretory tubule. Each bundle contains 8-12 axons that possess numerous varicosities and contain small clear and large dense core vesicles. The glands of the hindpaws and their innervation develop during the first three weeks after birth. Catecholamine-containing axons were associated with the forming glands. At 7 and 10 days, intensely fluorescent fibers surrounded the tubules, and all of the axon profiles associated with the glands contained small granular vesicles (SGV) after permanganate fixation to reveal vesicular stores of norepinephrine. At 14 days the sweat gland plexus was less intensely fluorescent than at earlier ages and relatively few SGV were present. By 21 days, no endogenous catecholamine fluorescence and no SGV were detectable. However, following exposure to exogenous catecholamine, fluorescent fibers were present in the sweat glands of mature rats and they corresponded in position and density to the plexus localized with acetylcholinesterase staining. Catecholamine uptake was blocked by incubation in the cold and by desmethylimipramine and was not observed in cholinergic parasympathetic fibers in the iris or salivary glands. After intraperitoneal administration of 5-hydroxydopamine and permanganate fixation, all the axons in the sweat glands contained a few SGV. Thus, the developing sweat glands appear to be innervated by noradrenergic axons that lose their stores of endogenous catecholamines but not their capacity for uptake and storage as they elaborate an axonal plexus in the maturing glands. These observations support the hypothesis that cholinergic sympathetic neurons appear to undergo a transition from noradrenergic to cholinergic function during development in vivo similar to that previously described in cell culture.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholinesterase / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Catecholamines / metabolism
  • Cholinergic Fibers / embryology*
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Nerve Endings / ultrastructure
  • Neuronal Plasticity*
  • Rats
  • Sweat Glands / embryology
  • Sweat Glands / innervation*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / embryology*


  • Catecholamines
  • Acetylcholinesterase