Projections from the periaqueductal gray to the rostromedial pericoerulear region and nucleus locus coeruleus: Anatomic and physiologic studies

Matthew Ennis, Michael Behbehani, Michael T. Shipley, Elisabeth J. van Bockstaele, Gary Aston‐Jones

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Previous studies showed that the nucleus locus coeruleus (LC) receives two major afferent inputs from (1) nucleus paragigantocellularis and (2) nucleus prepositus hypoglossi, both in the rostral medulla. Recent reports suggested that the midbrain periaqueductal gray (PAG) projects to the rostromedial pericoerulear area and LC. Since the PAG is a major site for control of central antinociception, and since descending nonadrenergic fibers have been implicated in pain modulation, we have investigated in detail the functional anatomy of projections from PAG to the dorsolateral pontine tegmentum. A combined anatomical and electrophysiological approach was used to assess the organization and synaptic influence of PAG on neurons in the rostromedial pericoerulear region and in LC proper. Injections of the tracer wheatgerm agglutinin conjugated to horseradish peroxidase encompassing LC proper and the rostromedial pericoerulear area retrogradely labeled neurons in PAG located lateral and ventrolateral to the cerebral aqueduct; injections restricted to LC proper did not consistently label PAG neurons. Deposits of the anterograde axonal tracer Phaseolus vulgaris leucoagglutinin into this same region of PAG labeled axons that robustly innervated the zone rostral and medial to LC. Only sparse fibers were observed in LC proper. Consistent with these results, focal electrical stimulation of LC antidromically activated only a few PAG neurons (6 of 100); all of these driven cells were located lateral and ventrolateral to the cerebral aqueduct. The majority of neurons in the rostromedial pericoerulear area were robustly activated by single pulse stimulation of PAG. In contrast, single pulse electrical stimulation of lateral PAG produced weak to moderate synaptic activation of some LC neurons; stimulation of ventrolateral PAG produced predominant inhibition of LC discharge, perhaps through recurrent collaterals subsequent to antidromic activation of neighboring LC cells. Taken together, these results indicate that PAG strongly innervates the region rostral and medial to LC, including Barrington's nucleus, but only weakly innervates LC proper. Although recent studies indicate that the dendrites of LC neurons ramify heavily and selectively in the rostromedial pericoerulear region, the results of the present physiological studies suggest that PAG preferentially targets rostromedial pericoerulear neurons rather than LC dendrites.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)480-494
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Comparative Neurology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 15 1991
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuroscience(all)


  • Barrington's nucleus
  • analgesia
  • central gray
  • norepinephrine
  • pontine micturition center


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