Dopamine projections to the cerebral cortex have been implicated in normal and pathological cognitive processes, notably, Parkinson's disease and schizophrenia. To help elucidate the function of these dopamine axons, they were characterized by serial section electron microscopy in individual layers of monkey prefrontal cortex. Dopamine immunoreactivity was visualized with a silver precipitation technique that allowed clear resolution of the internal structures and cell membranes of labeled axons. Apart from the occasional large microtubule-filled axon, dopamine axons were thin and varicose with many clear synaptic vesicles and fewer densecore vesicles. With few exceptions, dopamine synapses were symmetric and quite small, seen in only one to three serial sections. A determination of the “synaptic incidence” showed that only 39% of labeled varicosities formed identifiable synapses. However, it is certain that some small synapses could not be visualized even in serial sections, and it is possible that the vast majority if not all varicosities form synapses. Except for one soma, dendritic spines and shafts were the recipients of dopamine synapses. Many postsynaptic shafts were small and spiny, indicating that they were distal pyramidal dendrites. However, some postsynaptic shafts especially in supragranular layers had distinctly nonpyramidal features. These lacked spines, had a high density of synaptic inputs, and often had a strikingly varicose morphology. The data suggest that the majority of dopamine synapses in all layers are on pyramidal cells, but that a significant fraction are on presumed GA-BAergic nonpyramidal cells.

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