The spinal and principal sensory trigeminal nuclei relay noxious and nonnoxious stimuli from the orofacial region to the thalamus. Physiological studies have implicated glutamate as an important neurotransmitter in this region. Despite its importance as a potential transmitter, few studies have examined the anatomical distribution of glutamate within these nuclei. We therefore chose to use a monoclonal antibody raised against glutamate conjugated to a carrier protein to identify and describe glutamate‐like immunoreactive processes at the electron microscopic level. Glutamate‐like immunoreactive axon terminals were identified throughout the spinal trigeminal and principal sensory trigeminal nucleus. In. subnucleus caudalis glutamate‐like immunoreactive terminals occurred frequently in all laminae and were morphologically heterogeneous. In lamina I, glutamate‐like immunoreactive terminals were primarily ovoid, contained spherical synaptic vesicles, and participated in synaptic complexes with both dendritic and axonal profiles. In laminae II and III many glutamate‐like immunoreactive axon terminals were identified as the central element in synaptic glomeruli. Within discrete patches of lamina II, large numbers of glutamate‐like immunoreactive terminals contained dense core vesicles. The majority of glutamate‐like immunoreactive terminals in subnucleus interpolaris, subnucleus oralis, and principal sensory trigeminal nucleus were similar in morphology and synaptic interaction to the glutamate‐like immunoreactive terminals found in subnucleus caudalis, Glutamate‐like immunoreactive terminals that were the central presynaptic element in glomerular complexes were seen in all subnuclei. In sections from subnucleus interpolaris and subnucleus oralis central glutamate‐like immunoreactive terminations within glomerular complexes had much smoother profiles, and in subnucleus interpolaris participated primarily in axodendritic synaptic junctions. In the principal sensory trigeminal nucleus central glutamate‐like immunoreactive terminations were highly scalloped and participated in numerous axoaxonic synaptic junctions. The above observations are consistent with the hypothesis that glutamate‐like immunoreactivity is present in some primary afferent terminations and functions as an important excitatory transmitter involved in the relay of sensory information to the spinal trigeminal and principal sensory trigeminal nucleus.
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