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Evidence for structural plasticity in the supraoptic nucleus of the rat hypothalamus in relation to gestation and lactation

Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/0306-4522(84)90222-7
  • Biology


Abstract Supraoptic nuclei of lactating rats present a particular anatomical organization that could serve to facilitate the synchronization of neuronal firing observed during suckling-induced reflex milk ejections. Although magnocellular neurones are usually separated by neuropil elements, particularly glial fibers, in lactating rats, numerous neurosecretory soma and dendritic profiles are in direct apposition, without glial interposition. Concomittantly, there is also a higher incidence of presynaptic terminals contacting two neurosecretory elements in the same plane of section (“double” synapses). In the present study, a quantitative ultrastructural analysis was used to trace the evolution of the structural reorganization of the nucleus at different stages of the reproductive cycle. The percentage of neurosecretory soma and dendritic profiles in direct apposition was low two weeks after the beginning of pregnancy, but the day prior to parturition, as during lactation, over 40% of all neurosecretory profiles were directly in contact and involved about 10% of the total neuronal surface membrane measured (a 5-fold increase over the corresponding frequencies recorded in virgin rats at oestrus). The contiguous neuronal membranes and associated intercellular space appeared unmodified, except for the presence of attachment plaques, that also increased in frequency at late gestation and lactation. The incidence of “double” synapses also increased by late gestation, so that at lactation, they bridged 8% of all the recorded neurosecretory somata and dendrites, (as compared to 1% in the virgin rats). Similar changes were observed during a first and second gestation and lactation. The incidence of direct appositions and “double” synapses then diminished gradually after weaning: 2 months after the end of lactation, the ultrastructure of the nucleus resembled that of virgin animals. These observations demonstrate a plasticity in the structural organization of the supraoptic nucleus that appears closely related to changing physiological states of the animal and that involves both neurone-glial relationships and the neurones' synaptic configuration.

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