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Chronic Hypoxia Does Not Induce Synaptic Plasticity in the Phrenic Nucleus

Experimental Neurology
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1006/exnr.1997.6649


Abstract Interruption of the main descending respiratory drive to phrenic motoneurons by cold block or spinal cord hemisection results in morphological modifications of the ipsilateral phrenic nucleus in the rat. The modifications consist of an increase in the number of multiple synapses and dendrodendritic appositions and elongation of the asymmetric and symmetric synaptic active zones. Hemisection and hemispinalization by cold block cause not only “functional deafferentation” of the ipsilateral phrenic neurons (i.e., a loss of ipsilateral descending respiratory drive), but also an increase in the remaining contralateral descending respiratory drive. The contralateral respiratory pathways connect with phrenic motoneurons ipsilateral to cold block or hemisection by decussating collateral axons which cross the spinal cord midline below the hemisection/cold block site. Thus, the phrenic nucleus synaptic plasticity could possibly be induced by functional deafferentation or by an increase of the descending respiratory drive. To differentiate between these two possible inducers of the plasticity, we assessed the synaptic morphology of the phrenic nucleus of nonoperated rats exposed to 48 h of hypoxia in an atmosphere chamber. The hypoxia exposure produces an increased descending respiratory drive without functional deafferentation. The quantitative data extracted from electron micrographs of the phrenic nucleus from four experimental rats were compared with the data from four normal breathing animals. Phrenic nucleus morphometric analysis showed that there was no significant difference in the mean number of single synapses between the samples from control animals (141 ± 12.12) and the experimental animals (156 ± 26.73). Similarly, no significant difference was detected in the total number of synaptic active zones of control animals (178.25 ± 11.13) and experimental animals (195.05 ± 5.35). Furthermore, the length of synaptic active zones of asymmetrical synapses (0.21 ± 0.024 μm) or symmetrical synapses (0.22 ± 0.022 μm) did not change significantly compared to the synaptic active zone length in control animals (0.21 ± 0.018 μm for asymmetrical and 0.21 ± 0.010 μm for symmetrical). We conclude that no synaptic plasticity occurs in the phrenic nucleus without functional deafferentation in spite of an increase in descending respiratory drive. Therefore functional deafferentation may be the primary inducer of phrenic nucleus synaptic plasticity occurring after hemisection or cold block.

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