, Volume 189, Issue 6, pp 495-520

The unipolar brush cells of the rat cerebellar cortex and cochlear nucleus are calretinin-positive: a study by light and electron microscopic immunocytochemistry

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Cell class-specific markers are powerful tools for the study of individual neuronal populations. The peculiar unipolar brush cells of the mammalian cerebellar cortex have only recently been definitively identified by means of the Golgi method, and we have explored markers of cerebellar neurons with the purpose of facilitating the analysis of this new cell population and, especially, its distribution and ultrastructural features. By light microscopic immunocytochemistry, we demonstrate that, in the rat, the unipolar brush cells are the cortical neurons that are most densely immunostained with antiserum to calretinin, a recently discovered calcium-binding protein. The unipolar brush cells are highly concentrated in the flocculo-nodular lobe, the ventral uvula and the ventral paraflocculus, occur at relatively high density in the lingula, at moderate-to-low density in other folia of the vermis and in the narrow intermediate cortex, and at low to very low density, with the exception of a few hot spots, in the lateral regions of the cerebellar hemispheres and in the dorsal paraflocculus. Unipolar brush cells are also found in the cochlear nucleus. In addition to the unipolar brush cells, calretinin antibody distinctly stains certain mossy fibers, and weakly to moderately stains other cerebellar elements, such as granule neurons and climbing fibers. In the lobules containing high densities of unipolar brush cells, the granule cell bodies and the parallel fibers are much less immunoreactive, and there are many more densely immunostained mossy fibers than in the lobules, where these cells are rare, which suggests some relationships between these elements. In the cerebellar nuclei, small neurons are densely immunostained, while large neurons are immunonegative.

The unipolar brush cells reside nearly exclusively in the granular layer. They are small neurons, intermediate in size between granule cells and Golgi cells, and their features are remarkably similar across all lobules. They usually have a single, relatively thick dendrite of varying length that terminates in a brush-like tip consisting of several short branchlets. Utilizing a pre-embedding protocol, we have identified unipolar brush cells with the electron microscope. The cytoplasm of these cells is partially obscured by the electron dense product of calretinin immunoreaction in all regions of the soma and processes. The cells are often covered with non-synaptic appendages and contain a peculiar cytoplasmic inclusion consisting of ringlet subunits. Other characteristic components are numerous neurofilaments, mitochondria and large, dense-core vesicles. Individual brushes enter one or two glomeruli, where the dendritic branchlets establish an unusually extensive synapse with mossy fiber rosettes. In addition to their contact with the mossy rosettes, the branchlets are postsynaptic to boutons presumably belonging to the axonal plexus of Golgi cells and are also presynaptic to small dendrites, displaying small, clear synaptic vesicles at the site of contact. The distinct calretinin-like immunoreactivity of the unipolar brush cells may be related to strong calcium influx at their extensive synapses with the mossy fiber rosettes.