Theses Doctoral

Specific connectivity and molecular diversity of mouse rubrospinal neurons

Colaco, Nalini A.

While much progress has been made in understanding the development, differentiation, and organization of the spinal motor system, the complex circuitry that is integrated to determine a motor behavior has yet to be fully understood. The activity of motor neurons is influenced by sensory feedback, excitatory and inhibitory interneurons, and supraspinal control from higher brain regions in the CNS. Descending pathways from the cortex and midbrain are involved in the control of voluntary motor output. This is made possible by their projections onto spinal interneurons and, to a degree that varies between species, directly onto motor neurons. However, the somatotopic organization and molecular diversity of supraspinal projection neurons, and the circuitry that underlies their contribution to motor output, remain incompletely understood. The evolutionary emergence of direct descending projections onto motor neurons has been considered to reflect a specialized level of organization for precise control of individual forelimb muscles. Unlike their polysynaptic counterparts, monosynaptic connections represent direct, unfiltered access to the motor neuron circuit. The direct circuit is thought to represent a neural specialization for the increase in fractionated digit movements exhibited by primates and humans. The progressive realization that rodents have a greater degree of manual dexterity than was previously thought has evoked renewed interest in the role of direct supraspinal projections in other mammalian species. Lesion studies in the rodent indicated that, of the two major supraspinal pathways involved in the control of voluntary movement, the rubrospinal tract had a greater role in control of distal forelimb musculature. However, the degree to which this reflected direct projections onto motor neurons was not clear. Earlier anatomical tracing studies in the rat indicated that there are close appositions between labeled rubrospinal axons and motor neurons projecting to intermediate and distal forelimb muscles. To confirm that these contacts correspond to synapses, I developed a viral tracing strategy to visualize projections from the midbrain. Using an established technique of high-magnification confocal imaging combined with co-localization of the rubrospinal synaptic terminal marker, vglut2, I established the existence of monosynaptic connections from the ventral midbrain at the level of the red nucleus onto a restricted population of forelimb motor neurons at a single spinal level (C7-C8) in the rodent. To determine whether the motor neurons that receive synaptic input correspond to specific motor pool(s), I first established a positional map of forelimb muscle motor pools in the cervical enlargement of the mouse spinal cord. A single motor pool, that which innervates the extensor digitorum muscle, appeared to be situated in the dense dorsolateral termination zone of rubrospinal ventral fibers. The extensor digitorum muscle plays a key role in digit extension and arpeggio movements during skilled reaching. Anterograde labeling of rubrospinal descending fibers combined with retrograde labeling of extensor digitorum motor neurons revealed a direct circuit from the red nucleus onto this population of motor neurons. Surprisingly, neighboring motor pools innervating digit flexor muscles did not receive rubrospinal inputs. Moreover, other modulatory inputs onto motor neurons, including corticospinal, proprioceptive, and cholinergic interneuron afferents did not distinguish between extensor and flexor digitorum motor neurons. My data therefore reveal a previously unrecognized level of motor pool specificity in the direct rubrospinal circuit. The identification of a small number of rubrospinal fibers that project onto extensor digitorum motor neurons suggested a considerable degree of heterogeneity between rubrospinal neurons. I therefore investigated the anatomical and molecular organization of subpopulations of rubrospinal neurons using retrograde labeling to identify subpopulations of rubrospinal neurons projecting, respectively, to cervical and lumbar levels of the spinal cord. Two rubrospinal populations could be identified within the red nucleus: a rostral population of intermingled cervical and lumbar projection neurons which express the Pou transcription factor Brn3a, and a caudal population containing segregated cervical and lumbar domains, which co-express Brn3a and a novel member of the C1q/TNF protein family, C1qL2. Following laser capture microdissection and genetic profiling of these three populations, I identified and validated molecular correlates of the topographic domains within the rodent red nucleus. The transcription factors tshz3 and mafB are expressed in the caudal cervical domain, whereas the chemokine fam19a4 is restricted to the caudal lumbar domain. KitL is an axon guidance molecule that is expressed in both the rostral population and the caudal cervical population. Finally, I identified two genes, cxcl13 and gpr88, that characterize subpopulations within these topographic divisions. Although the functional role of these genes in the establishment of the rubrospinal circuit remains to be determined, the data reveal a high level of molecular heterogeneity within the red nucleus. I hypothesize that this diversity allows rubrospinal neurons to form circuits in a precise and specific manner during development. Overall, my data provide evidence for a novel organization within the rodent motor system in which direct projections from the rubrospinal tract onto motor neurons appear to control a very specific aspect of skilled movement: the stereotypic extension and separation of the digits in preparation for a task requiring digit manipulation. Identifying molecular correlates of the direct rubrospinal population is the logical next step in further understanding the specific circuitry that encodes descending motor commands. My results will provide a basis for the dissection of the rubro-motoneuronal circuit, enabling the establishment of a direct link between neural connectivity and individual muscle control during a skilled movement.



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More About This Work

Academic Units
Neurobiology and Behavior
Thesis Advisors
Henderson, Christopher
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 29, 2011