Under certain culture conditions, neonatal rat superior cervical ganglion neurons display not only a number of expected adrenergic characteristics but, paradoxically, also certain cholinergic functions such as the development of hexamethonium-sensitive synaptic contacts and accumulation of choline acetyltransferase (ChAc). The purpose of this study was to determine whether the entire population of cultured neurons was aquiring cholinergic capabilities, or whether this phenomenon was restricted to a subpopulation. After 1--6 and 8 wk in culture, neurons were fixed in KMnO4 after incubation in norepinephrine and prepared for electron microscopy analysis of synaptic vesicle content to determine whether vesicles were dense cored or clear. ChAc, acetylcholinesterase (AChE), and DOPA-decarboxylase (DDC) activities were assayed in sister cultures. In the period from 1 to 8 wk in culture, the average ChAc activity per neuron increased 1,100-fold, and the DDC and AChE activities increased 20- and 30-fold, respectively. After 1 wk in culture, 48 of 50 synaptic boutons contained predominantly dense-cored vesicles, but by 8 wk the synaptic vesicle population was predominantly of the clear type. At intermediate times, the vesicle population in many boutons was mixed. The morphology of the synaptic contacts on neuronal surfaces was that characteristic of autonomic systems, with no definite clustering of the vesicles adjacent to the area of contact. Increased vesicle size correlated with increasing age in culture and the presence of a dense core. Considering these data along with available physiological studies, we conclude that these cultures contain one population of neurons that is initially adrenergic. Over time, under conditions of this culture system, this population develops cholinergic mechanisms. That a neuron may, at a given time, express both cholinergic and adrenergic mechanisms is suggested by the approximately equal numbers of clear and dense-cored vesicles in the boutons found at the intermediate times.

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