Journal of Neurocytology

, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 85–109 | Cite as

The ultrastructure and synaptic architecture of phrenic motor neurons in the spinal cord of the adult rat

  • Harry G. Goshgarian
  • José A. Rafols


Although light microscopic studies have analysed phrenic motor neurons in several different species, there has never been an ultrastructural investigation of identified phrenic motor neurons. In addition, electrophysiological studies have raised questions relating to the function of phrenic motor neurons which may be answered only by direct electron microscopic investigation. Thus, the present study was carried out to provide a detailed ultrastructural analysis of identified phrenic motor neurons. Phrenic motor neurons in the spinal cord of the rat were labelled by retrogradely transported horseradish peroxidase (HRP) after transecting the phrenic nerve in the neck and applying the enzyme directly to the central stump of the transected nerve. The results showed that the general ultrastructural characteristics of phrenic motor neurons were similar to those previously reported for other spinal motor neurons. However, phrenic primary dendrites appeared to be isolated from all other dendritic profiles in the neuropil. Primary dendrites were not fasciculated. Fasciculation occurred only among the more distal secondary and tertiary phrenic dendritic branches. Direct dendrodendritic or dendrosomatic apposition was rarely seen; gap junctions between directly apposing phrenic neuronal membranes were not observed. The membranes of adjacent phrenic neuronal profiles were most frequently separated by intervening sheaths of astroglial processes. Myelinated phrenic axons and a phrenic axon collateral were identified. The initial portion of the phrenic axon collateral was cone-shaped, lacked myelin, and thus resembled a miniature axon hillock. In one instance, a large accumulation of polyribosomes was observed within the hillock-like structure of a phrenic axon collateral. Eight morphological types of synaptic boutons, M, P, NFs, S, NFf, F, G and C were classified according to criteria used by previous investigators. Most of these endings (M, NFs, NFf, S and F) made synaptic contact with profiles of labelled phrenic somata and dendrites. F, NFf, and S boutons also terminated on phrenic axon hillocks. C and G boutons contacted exclusively phrenic somata and small calibre dendrites, respectively. P boutons established axo-axonic synaptic contacts with the M and NFs bouton. The morphological findings of the present study provide new data that may be related to phrenic synchronized output and presynaptic inhibition of primary afferents terminating on phrenic motor neurons.


Phrenic Nerve Synaptic Contact Primary Dendrite Electron Microscopic Investigation Spinal Motor Neuron 
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Copyright information

© Chapman and Hall Ltd 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • Harry G. Goshgarian
    • 1
  • José A. Rafols
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of AnatomyWayne State University, School of MedicineDetroitUSA

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