Cholinergic neurons and terminal fields revealed by immunohistochemistry for the vesicular acetylcholine transporter. II. The peripheral nervous system

Neuroscience. 1998 May;84(2):361-76. doi: 10.1016/s0306-4522(97)80196-0.


The peripheral sympathetic and parasympathetic cholinergic innervation was investigated with antibodies directed against the C-terminus of the rat vesicular acetylcholine transporter. Immunohistochemistry for the vesicular acetylcholine transporter resulted in considerably more detailed visualization of cholinergic terminal fields in the peripheral nervous system than reported previously and was well suited to also identify cholinergic perikarya. Vesicular acetylcholine transporter immunoreactivity completely delineated the preganglionic sympathetic terminals in pre- and paravertebral sympathetic ganglia, and in the adrenal medulla as well as postganglionic cholinergic neurons in the paravertebral chain. Cholinergic terminals of sudomotor and vasomotor nerves of skeletal muscle were optimally visualized. Mixed peripheral ganglia, including periprostatic and uterovaginal ganglia, exhibited extensive preganglionic cholinergic innervation of both noradrenergic and cholinergic postganglionic principal neurons which were intermingled in these ganglia. Varicose vesicular acetylcholine transporter-positive fibres and terminals, representing the cranial parasympathetic innervation of the cerebral vasculature, of salivary and lacrimal glands, of the eye, of the respiratory tract and of the upper digestive tract innervated various target structures including seromucous gland epithelium and myoepithelium, respiratory epithelium, and smooth muscle of the tracheobronchial tree. The only macrovascular elements receiving vesicular acetylcholine transporter-positive innervation were the cerebral arteries. The microvasculature throughout the viscera, with the exception of lymphoid tissues, the liver and kidney, received vesicular acetylcholine transporter-positive innervation while the microvasculature of limb and trunk skeletal muscle appeared to be the only relevant somatic target of vesicular acetylcholine transporter innervation. Vesicular acetylcholine transporter immunoreactivity was particularly useful for identification of parasympathetic intrinsic ganglia, and their terminal fields, in heart, uterus, and other peripheral organs receiving parasympathetic innervation. Extensive vesicular acetylcholine transporter-positive terminal fields were apparent in both atrial and ventricular tissues of the heart targeting cardiomyocytes as well as cardiac microvessels. Pericardiac brown adipose tissue was also supplied by vesicular acetylcholine transporter-positive varicose fibres. The enteric ganglia of the myenteric and submucous plexus, their synaptic junctions with circular and longitudinal smooth muscle, and terminal fields of the lamina propria of the stomach and intestine and of the local microvasculature were intensely vesicular acetylcholine transporter positive. Vesicular acetylcholine transporter-positive innervation was delivered to the exocrine and endocrine pancreas originating from vesicular acetylcholine transporter-positive intrapancreatic ganglia. Vesicular acetylcholine transporter immunoreactivity in urogenital organs revealed the patterns of terminal cholinergic fields arising from the sacral parasympathetic innervation of these structures. Components of the cholinergic nervous system in the periphery whose existence has been controversial have been confirmed, and the existence of new components of the cholinergic nervous system has been documented, with vesicular acetylcholine transporter immunohistochemistry. Visualization of vesicular acetylcholine transporter will allow documentation of changes in synaptic patency during development, in disease, and during changes in neurotransmission accompanying injury and dystrophy, in the peripheral nervous system.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Carrier Proteins / analysis*
  • Carrier Proteins / biosynthesis
  • Female
  • Ganglia / cytology
  • Ganglia / metabolism
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Membrane Transport Proteins*
  • Nerve Fibers / metabolism
  • Nerve Fibers / ultrastructure
  • Neurons / cytology*
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Organ Specificity
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / cytology*
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / metabolism
  • Peripheral Nerves / cytology*
  • Peripheral Nerves / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / cytology*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / metabolism
  • Vesicular Acetylcholine Transport Proteins
  • Vesicular Transport Proteins*


  • Carrier Proteins
  • Membrane Transport Proteins
  • Slc18a3 protein, rat
  • Vesicular Acetylcholine Transport Proteins
  • Vesicular Transport Proteins
  • Acetylcholine