This study examined the ultrastructure of presynaptic terminals after short periods of vigorous acetylcholine (ACh) secretion in the cat superior cervical ganglion in vivo. Experimental trunks of cats anesthetized with chloralose-urethane were stimulated supra-maximally for periods of 15–30 min and at several frequencies including the upper physiological range (5–10 Hz). Stimulated and contralateral control ganglia from each animal were fixed by intra-arterial aldehyde perfusion, processed simultaneously, and compared by electron microscopy. Stimulation produced an absolute decrease in the number of synaptic vesicles, an enlargement of axonal surface membrane, and distinct alterations in the shape of presynaptic terminals. Virtually complete recovery occurred within 1 h after stimulation at 10 Hz for 30 min. These results support the hypothesis that ACh release at mammalian axodendritic synapses occurs by exocytosis of synaptic vesicles resulting in the incorporation of vesicle membrane into the presynaptic membrane and that synaptic vesicles subsequently are reformed from plasma membrane.

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