Acetylcholine (ACh) is one of the transmitters utilized by extrathalamic afferents to modulate stimulus-driven neurotransmission and experience-dependent plasticity in the visual cortex. Since these processes also depend on the activation of glutamatergic receptors, cholinergic terminals may exert their effects via direct modulation of excitatory neurotransmission. The objective of this study was to determine whether the ultrastructural relationships between cholinergic terminals, glutamate-immunoreactive neurons, and other unlabeled cells support this idea. Sections from aldehyde-fixed visual cortex (area 17) of adult cats were immunolabled for the following molecules: (1) choline acetyltransferase (ChAT), the acetylcholine-synthesizing enzyme; (2) L-glutamate; or (3) ChAT simultaneously with L-glutamate by combining electron-microscopic immunogold and immunoperoxidase techniques. None of the cortical terminals were dually labeled, suggesting that (1) the labeling procedure was free of chemical or immunological cross reactions; and (2) glutamate immunoreactivity probably reflects the transmitter, and not metabolic, pool of L-glutamate. Comparisons between cholinergic and noncholinergic axons revealed that (1) ChAT-immunoreactive axons formed fewer identifiable synaptic contacts within single ultrathin sections (P < 0.01 using chi-square test); and (2) more of the cholinergic axons occurred directly opposed to other terminals (P < 0.0015 by chi-square test), including 21% of which resided directly across asymmetric, axo-spinous junctions. Dual labeling showed that a third of the synaptic targets for cholinergic terminals contained detectable levels of glutamate immunoreactivity. Some of the axo-spinous junctions juxtaposed to cholinergic axons also exhibited glutamate immunoreactivity presynaptically. These observations provide ultrastructural evidence for direct, cholinergic modulation of glutamatergic pyramidal neurons within the mammalian neocortex. Prevalence of juxtapositions between cholinergic terminals and axo-spinous synapses supports the following ideas: (1) ACh may modulate the release of noncholinergic transmitters, including Glu; (2) Glu may modulate ACh release; and (3) these processes may be concurrent with cholinergic modulation of glutamatergic synapses at postsynaptic sites.
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