Acetylcholinesterase-histochemistry has been widely used for localizing cholinergic neurons despite specificity problems. The distribution of cells stained with this method has never been directly compared on a histochemical level with the specific cholinergic marker, choline acetyltransferase. We recently reported the immunohistochemical localization of choline acetyltransferase using monoclonal antibodies [Levey A. I., Armstrong D., Atweh S. F., Terry R. D. & Wainer B. H. (1983) J. Neurosci. 3, 1-9]. Here we report the development of a combined histochemical and immunohistochemical method for the co-localization of the 2 cholinergic markers, and their comparison in the rat cerebrum. Although the precise relationship between the markers was complex, the important results were: 1. (1) all neurons which contained choline acetyltransferase also contained some acetylcholinesterase; 2. (2) many acetylcholinesterase-containing neurons did not contain any demonstrable choline acetyltransferase; 3. (3) all neurons which stained intensely for acetylcholinesterase in the neostriatum and basal forebrain also contained choline acetyltransferase; and 4. (4) many choline acetyltransferase-containing neurons did not stain intensely for acetylcholinesterase. The results corroborate the assumption that choline acetyltransferase is a more specific marker for cholinergic neurons than acetylcholinesterase. Intense staining for acetylcholinesterase can be reliably used in some regions of the cerebrum for identifying cholinergic neurons, however, it should be recognized that this criterion is not essential for all cholinergic neurons.
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