Previous studies in anaesthetized animals have shown that the hypoxia- induced increase in sympathetic vasomotor activity is largely dependent on synaptic excitation of sympathoexcitatory pressor neurons in the rostral part of the ventrolateral medulla. The primary aim of this study was to determine, in conscious rabbits, the distribution of neurons within the brain that have properties characteristic of interneurons conveying excitatory inputs to the rostral ventrolateral medullary pressor region in response to systemic hypoxia. In a preliminary operation, a retrogradely-transported tracer, fluorescent-labelled microspheres, was injected into the physiologically- identified pressor region in the rostral ventrolateral medulla. After a waiting period of one to two weeks, the conscious rabbits were subjected to moderate hypoxia (induced by breathing 10% O2 in N2) for a period of 60 min. Control groups of animals were exposed to room air or to mild hypoxia (12% O2 in N2). Moderate hypoxia resulted in a modest hypertension of approximately 15 mmHg, and in the expression of Fos (a marker of neuronal activation) in many neurons in the nucleus tractus solitarius, the rostral, intermediate and caudal parts of the ventrolateral medulla, the Kolliker- Fuse nucleus, locus coeruleus, subcoeruleus and A5 area in the pons as well as in several midbrain and forebrain regions, including the periaqueductal grey in the midbrain and the paraventricular, supraoptic and arcuate nuclei in the hypothalamus. Fos expression was also observed in these regions in rabbits subjected to mild hypoxia or normoxia, but it was much reduced compared to rabbits subjected to moderate hypoxia. Approximately half of the neurons in the ventrolateral medulla, 27% of neurons in the nucleus tractus solitarius, and 49-81% of neurons in the locus coeruleus, sub-coeruleus and A5 area that expressed Fos following moderate hypoxia were also immunoreactive for tyrosine hydroxylase, and were therefore catecholamine cells. Approximately half of the neurons in the nucleus tractus solitarius and two-thirds of neurons in the Kolliker-Fuse nucleus that expressed Fos following moderate hypoxia were retrogradely labelled from the rostral ventrolateral medullary pressor region. Similarly, approximately one quarter of Fos-positive cells in the caudal and intermediate ventrolateral medulla were retrogradely labelled, but very few Fos-positive/retrogradely-labelled cells were found in other pontomedullary or suprapontine brain regions. The results indicate that systemic hypoxia results in activation of neurons in several discrete nuclei in the brainstem and forebrain, including neurons in all the major pontomedullary catecholamine cell groups. However, neurons that are activated by systemic hypoxia and that also project to the rostral ventrolateral medullary pressor region are virtually confined to the lower brainstem, primarily in the nucleus tractus solitarius and Kolliker-Fuse nucleus and to a lesser extent the caudal/intermediate ventrolateral medulla. In a previous study from our laboratory, we determined the distribution of neurons in the brainstem that are activated by hypertension and that also project to the rostral ventrolateral medullary presser region. [Polson et el. (1995) Neuroscience 67, 107-123]. Comparison of the present results with those from this previous study indicates that the hypoxia-activated neurons in the nucleus tractus solitarius and Kolliker-Fuse nucleus that project to the rostral ventrolateral medulla are likely to be interneurons conveying excitatory chemoreceptor signals, while those in the caudal/intermediate ventrolateral medulla are likely to be mainly interneurons conveying inhibitory baroreceptor signals, activated by the rise in arterial blood pressure associated with the hypoxia-induced hypertension.
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