This study investigated cellular and synaptic mechanisms of cholinergic neuromodulation in the in vitro lamprey spinal cord. Most spinal neurons tested responded to local application of acetylcholine (ACh) with depolarization and decreased input resistance. The depolarization persisted in the presence of either tetrodotoxin or muscarinic antagonist scopolamine and was abolished with nicotinic antagonist mecamylamine, indicating a direct depolarization through nicotinic ACh receptors. Local application of muscarinic ACh agonists modulated synaptic strength in the spinal cord by decreasing the amplitude of unitary excitatory and inhibitory postsynaptic potentials. The postsynaptic response to direct application of glutamate was unchanged by muscarinic agonists, suggesting a presynaptic mechanism. Cholinergic feedback from motoneurons was assessed using stimulation of a ventral root in the quiescent spinal cord while recording intracellularly from spinal motoneurons or interneurons. Mainly depolarizing potentials were observed, a portion of which was insensitive to removal of extracellular Ca2+, indicating electrotonic coupling. Hyperpolarizing potentials were also observed and were attenuated by the glycinergic antagonist strychnine, whereas depolarizing responses were potentiated by strychnine. Mecamylamine also reduced hyperpolarizing responses. The pharmacology of these responses suggests a Renshaw-like feedback pathway in lamprey. Immunohistochemistry for choline acetyltransferase, performed in combination with retrograde filling of motoneurons, demonstrated a population of nonmotoneuron cholinergic cells in the lamprey spinal cord. Thus endogenous cholinergic modulation of the lamprey spinal locomotor network is likely produced by both motoneurons and cholinergic interneurons acting via combined postsynaptic and presynaptic actions.
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