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Disproportionate loss of excitatory inputs to smaller phrenic motor neurons following cervical spinal hemisection

Rana, S;Zhan, WZ;Mantilla, CB;Sieck, GC;

Key points

  • Motor units, comprising a motor neuron and the muscle fibre it innervates, are activated in an orderly fashion to provide varying amounts of force.
  • A unilateral C2 spinal hemisection (C2SH) disrupts predominant excitatory input from medulla, causing cessation of inspiratory‐related diaphragm muscle activity, whereas higher force, non‐ventilatory diaphragm activity persists.
  • In this study, we show a disproportionately larger loss of excitatory glutamatergic innervation to small phrenic motor neurons (PhMNs) following C2SH, as compared with large PhMNs ipsilateral to injury.
  • Our data suggest that there is a dichotomy in the distribution of inspiratory‐related descending excitatory glutamatergic input to small vs. large PhMNs that reflects their differential recruitment.


Excitatory glutamatergic input mediating inspiratory drive to phrenic motor neurons (PhMNs) emanates primarily from the ipsilateral ventrolateral medulla. Unilateral C2 hemisection (C2SH) disrupts this excitatory input, resulting in cessation of inspiratory‐related diaphragm muscle (DIAm) activity. In contrast, after C2SH, higher force, non‐ventilatory DIAm activity persists. Inspiratory behaviours require recruitment of only smaller PhMNs, whereas with more forceful expulsive/straining behaviours, larger PhMNs are recruited. Accordingly, we hypothesize that C2SH primarily disrupts glutamatergic synaptic inputs to smaller PhMNs, whereas glutamatergic synaptic inputs to larger PhMNs are preserved. We examined changes in glutamatergic presynaptic input onto retrogradely labelled PhMNs using immunohistochemistry for VGLUT1 and VGLUT2. We found that 7 days after C2SH there was an ∼60% reduction in glutamatergic inputs to smaller PhMNs compared with an ∼35% reduction at larger PhMNs. These results are consistent with a more pronounced impact of C2SH on inspiratory behaviours of the DIAm, and the preservation of higher force behaviours after C2SH. These results indicate that the source of glutamatergic synaptic input to PhMNs varies depending on motor neuron size and reflects different functional control – perhaps separate central pattern generator and premotor circuits. For smaller PhMNs, the central pattern generator for inspiration is located in the pre‐Bötzinger complex and premotor neurons in the ventrolateral medulla, sending predominantly ipsilateral projections via the dorsolateral funiculus. C2SH disrupts this glutamatergic input. For larger PhMNs, a large proportion of excitatory inputs appear to exist below the C2 level or from contralateral regions of the brainstem and spinal cord.