On the presence and functional significance of sympathetic premotor neurons with collateralized spinal axons in the rat

David G.S. Farmer, Natasha Pracejus, Bowen Dempsey, Anita Turner, Phillip Bokiniec, Julian F.R. Paton, Anthony E. Pickering, Jasmine Burguet, Philippe Andrey, Ann K. Goodchild, Robin M. McAllen*, Simon McMullan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)
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Key points

Spinally-projecting neurons of the rostral ventrolateral medulla (RVLM) determine sympathetic outflow to different territories of the body. 

Previous studies suggest the existence of RVLM neurons with distinct functional classes, such as neurons that target sympathetic nerves bound for functionally-similar tissue types (e.g. muscle vasculature). The existence of RVLM neurons with more general actions had not been critically tested. 

Using viral tracing, we show that a significant minority of RVLM neurons send axon collaterals to disparate spinal segments (T 2 and T 10). 

Furthermore, optogenetic activation of sympathetic premotor neurons projecting to lumbar spinal segments also produced activation of sympathetic nerves from rostral spinal segments that innervate functionally diverse tissues (heart and forelimb muscle). 

These findings suggest the existence of individual RVLM neurons for which the axons branch to drive sympathetic preganglionic neurons of more than one functional class and may be able to produce global changes in sympathetic activity. 


We investigate the extent of spinal axon collateralization of rat rostral ventrolateral medulla (RVLM) sympathetic premotor neurons and its functional consequences. In anatomical tracing experiments, two recombinant herpes viral vectors with retrograde tropism and expressing different fluorophores were injected into the intermediolateral column at upper thoracic and lower thoracic levels. Histological analysis revealed that ∼21% of RVLM bulbospinal neurons were retrogradely labelled by both vectors, indicating substantial axonal collateralization to disparate spinal segments. In functional experiments, another virus with retrograde tropism, a canine adenovirus expressing Cre recombinase, was injected into the left intermediolateral horn around the thoracolumbar junction, whereas a Cre-dependent viral vector encoding Channelrhodopsin2 under LoxP control was injected into the ipsilateral RVLM. In subsequent terminal experiments, blue laser light (473 nm × 20 ms pulses at 10 mW) was used to activate RVLM neurons that had been transduced by both vectors. Stimulus-locked activation, at appropriate latencies, was recorded in the following pairs of sympathetic nerves: forelimb and hindlimb muscle sympathetic fibres, as well as cardiac and either hindlimb muscle or lumbar sympathetic nerves. The latter result demonstrates that axon collaterals of lumbar-projecting RVLM neurons project to, and excite, both functionally similar (forelimb and hindlimb muscle) and functionally dissimilar (lumbar and cardiac) preganglionic neurons. Taken together, these findings show that the axons of a significant proportion of RVLM neurons collateralise widely within the spinal cord, and that they may excite preganglionic neurons of more than one functional class.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3407-3423
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Physiology
Issue number13
Early online date11 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2019

Structured keywords

  • Anaesthesia Pain and Critical Care


  • Autonomic Nervous system
  • Integrative neurophysiology
  • Sympathetic nervous system
  • blood pressure
  • rostral ventrolateral medulla


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