The anatomical organization of cholinergic markers such as acetylcholinesterase, choline acetyltransferase, and nerve growth factor receptors was investigated in the basal ganglia of the human brain. The distribution of choline acetyltransferase-immunoreactive axons and varicosities and their relationship to regional perikarya showed that the caudate, putamen, nucleus accumbens, olfactory tubercle, globus pallidus, substantia nigra, red nucleus, and subthalamic nucleus of the human brain receive widespread cholinergic innervation. Components of the striatum (i.e., the putamen, caudate, olfactory tubercle, and nucleus accumbens) displayed the highest density of cholinergic varicosities. The next highest density of cholinergic innervation was detected in the red nucleus and subthalamic nucleus. The level of cholinergic innervation was of intermediate density in the globus pallidus and the ventral tegmental area and low in the pars compacta of the substantia nigra. Immunoreactivity for nerve growth factor receptors (NGFr) was confined to the cholinergic neurons of the basal forebrain and their processes. Axonal immunoreactivity for NGFr was therefore used as a marker for cholinergic projections originating from the basal forebrain (Woolf et al., '89: Neuroscience 30:143-152). Although the vast majority of striatal cholinergic innervation was NGFr-negative and, therefore, intrinsic, the striatum also contained NGFr-positive axons, indicating the existence of an additional cholinergic input from the basal forebrain. This basal forebrain cholinergic innervation was more pronounced in the putamen than in the caudate. The distribution of NGFr-positive axons suggested that the basal forebrain may also project to the globus pallidus but probably not to the subthalamic nucleus, substantia nigra, or red nucleus. The great majority of cholinergic innervation to these latter three structures and to parts of the globus pallidus appeared to come from cholinergic neurons outside the basal forebrain, most of which are probably located in the upper brainstem. These observations indicate that cholinergic neurotransmission originating from multiple sources is likely to play an important role in the diverse motor and behavioral affiliations that have been attributed to the human basal ganglia.
- motor system
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