Transneuronal tracing techniques were used in order to identify putative spinal interneurons and brainstem sites involved in the control of penile function. Pseudorabies virus was injected into the corpus cavernosus tissue of the penis in rats. After a four day survival period, rats were perfused with fixative and virus-labelled neurons were identified by immunohistochemistry. Postganglionic neurons were retrogradely labelled in the major pelvic ganglia. In the spinal cord, sympathetic and parasympathetic preganglionic neurons were labelled transneuronally. Presumptive interneurons were also labelled in the lower thoracic and lumbosacral spinal cord in locations consistent with what is currently known about such interneurons. In the brainstem, transneuronally labelled neurons were found in the medulla, pons and hypothalamus. Regions consistently labelled included the nucleus paragigantocellularis, parapyramidal reticular formation of the medulla, raphe pallidus, raphe magnus, A5 noradrenergic cell group, Barrington's nucleus and the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus. This study confirmed previous studies from our lab and others concerning the preganglionic and postganglionic neurons innervating the penis. The number, morphology and location of these neurons were consistent with labelling seen following injection of conventional tracers into the penis. The brainstem nuclei labelled in this study were also consistent with what is currently known about the brainstem control of penile function. The labelling appeared to be highly specific, in that descending systems involved in other functions were not labelled. These results provide further evidence that the pseudorabies virus transneuronal tracing technique is a valuable method for identifying neural circuits mediating specific functions.
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