Journal Of Neurophysiology
Like all skeletal muscles, the diaphragm muscle accomplishes a range of motor behaviors by recruiting different motor unit types in an orderly fashion. Recruitment of phrenic motor neurons (PhMNs) is generally assumed to be based primarily on the intrinsic properties of PhMNs with an equal distribution of descending excitatory inputs to all PhMNs. However, differences in pre-synaptic excitatory input across PhMNs of varying sizes could also contribute to the orderly recruitment pattern. In the spinal cord of Sprague-Dawley rats, we retrogradely labeled PhMNs using cholera toxin B (CTB) and validated a robust confocal imaging-based technique that utilizes semi-automated processing to identify pre-synaptic glutamatergic (Glu) terminals within a defined distance around the somal membrane of PhMNs of varying size. Our results revealed an ~10% higher density of Glu terminals at PhMNs in the lower tertile of somal surface area. These smaller PhMNs are likely recruited first to accomplish lower force ventilatory behaviors of the diaphragm as compared to larger PhMNs in the upper tertile that are recruited to accomplish higher force expulsive behaviors. These results suggest that differences in excitatory synaptic input to PhMNs may also contribute to the orderly recruitment of diaphragm motor units.