Superior cervical ganglion (SCG) neurons taken from perinatal rats and dissociated in culture develop cholinergic properties. This report examines this "plasticity" of neurotransmitter function with regard to its dependence on the stage of neuronal development. Explants of SCG from rats ranging in age from 2 d to adult were cultured, and the number of neurons surviving after 6 wk in culture was evaluated. The activities of choline acetyltransferase (ChAc) and DOPA decarboxylase (DDC) were assayed for each age group over time in culture, and the cytochemistry of the synaptic vesicle population was studied after norepinephrine loading and KMnO4 fixation. The specific activity of ChAc in all explants fell during the first 3--4 d in culture (secondary to degeneration of presynaptic terminals), with an increase during the next 30 d in explants from all age groups except in those from the 22-d-old and adult rats. The highest activity found after 1 mo in culture was in explants from 2-d-old rats (62.5 mmol per kg dry wt per h); the lowest was in explants from adults (1.3 nmol per kg dry wt per h). After 1 mo in vitro, there were no significant differences in DDC activity among explants from animals of any age (similar to approximately 220 mmol per kg dry wt per h). Co-culture of the SCG explants with heart muscle increased even further the ChAc activity in explants from 2-d-old rats but not in explants from 16-d-old and 6.5-wk-old animals. The cytochemistry of the synaptic vesicle population in 1-mo-old cultures correlated well with the ChAc activity; when the ChAc activity was high, the proportion of synaptic vesicles with clear centers was 71--88%. In explants from adult animals, only 12% of the vesicles contained clear centers. From these data we conclude that the maturity of the SCG neuron influences the degree to which it is able to adjust its neurotransmitter mechanisms. That the axons of this neuron are interacting with target tissues during the time that neurotransmitter plasticity is retained suggests that interaction with the target may play a role in the determination of transmitter type.

This content is only available as a PDF.