Quantitative and morphometric data indicate precise cellular interactions between serotonin terminals and postsynaptic targets in rat substantia nigra.
We have quantified the density of serotonin axonal varicosities, their synaptic incidence and their distribution among potential targets in the pars reticulata and pars compacta of the rat substantia nigra. Serotonin axonal varicosities, counted at the light microscopic level following in vitro [3H]serotonin uptake and autoradiography, amounted to 9 x 10(6)/mm3 in the pars reticulata and 6 x 10(6)/mm3 in the pars compacta, among the densest serotonin innervations in brain. As determined at the electron microscopic level following immunolabelling for serotonin, virtually all serotonin varicosities in the pars reticulata and 50% of those in the pars compacta formed a synapse, essentially with dendrites. The combination of serotonin immunocytochemistry with tyrosine hydroxylase immunolabelling of dopamine neurons reveals that 20% of the serotonin synaptic contacts in the pars reticulata are on dopamine dendrites and 6% are on a type of unlabelled dendrite characterized by its peculiarly high cytoplasmic content of microtubules. The comparison of the diameter of the dendritic profiles that were in synaptic contact with serotonin-immunoreactive varicosities with the diameter of all other dendritic profiles of the same type suggests that serotoninergic varicosities innervate dopamine dendrites uniformly along their length, whereas they tend to contact microtubule-filled dendrites in more proximal regions and the other, unidentified dendrites in more distal regions. Furthermore, the size of the serotonin-immunoreactive varicosities and of their synaptic junctions is significantly smaller on dopamine dendrites and larger on microtubule-filled dendrites than on other, unidentified dendrites, indicating that the nature of the postsynaptic target is an important determinant of synaptic dimensions. These data should help to clarify the role of serotonin in the nigral control of motor functions. They indicate that this dense serotonin input to the substantia nigra is very precisely organized, acting through both "non-junctional" and "junctional" modes of neurotransmission in the pars compacta, which projects to the neostriatum and the limbic system, whereas the predominant mode of serotonin transmission appears to be of the "junctional" type in the pars reticulata, where serotonin can finely control the motor output of the basal ganglia by acting on the GABA projection neurons either directly or through the local release of dopamine by dopaminergic dendrites. The data also raise the possibility that the postsynaptic targets have trophic retrograde influences on serotoninergic terminals.