Acetylcholine (ACh) is an important neurotransmitter in the mammalian brain; it is implicated in arousal, learning, and other cognitive functions. Recent studies indicate that nicotinic receptors contribute to these cholinergic effects, in addition to the established role of muscarinic receptors. In the hippocampus, where cholinergic involvement in learning and memory is particularly well documented, 7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subunits (7 nAChRs) are highly expressed, but their precise ultrastructural localization has not been determined. Here, we describe the results of immunogold labeling of serial ultrathin sections through stratum radiatum of area CA1 in the rat. Using both anti-7 nAChR immunolabeling and -bungarotoxin binding, we find that 7 nAChRs are present at nearly all synapses in CA1 stratum radiatum, with immunolabeling present at both presynaptic and postsynaptic elements. Morphological considerations and double immunolabeling indicate that GABAergic as well as glutamatergic synapses bear 7 nAChRs, at densities approaching those observed for glutamate receptors in CA1 stratum radiatum. Postsynaptically, 7 nAChRs often are distributed at dendritic spines in a perisynaptic annulus. In the postsynaptic cytoplasm, immunolabeling is associated with spine apparatus and other membranous structures, suggesting that 7 nAChRs may undergo dynamic regulation, with insertion into the synapse and subsequent internalization. The widespread and substantial expression of 7 nAChRs at synapses in the hippocampus is consistent with an important role in mediating and/or modulating synaptic transmission, plasticity, and neurodegeneration
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