Noradrenergic substrates sensing light within brainstem reticular formation as targets for light-induced behavioral and cardiovascular plasticity

R. Pinelli, D. Bucci, E. Scaffidi, C. Berti, V. Bumah, G. Lazzeri, R. Ruffoli, S. Puglisi-Allegra, C. L. Busceti, F. Fornai


The occurrence of pure light exerts a variety of effects in the human body, which span from behavioral alterations, such as light-driven automatic motor activity, cognition and mood to more archaic vegetative functions, which encompass most organs of the body with remarkable effects on the cardiovascular system. Although empirical evidence clearly indicates occurrence of these widespread effects, the anatomical correlates and long-lasting changes within putatively specific neuronal circuitries remain largely unexplored. A specific role is supposed to take place for catecholamine containing neurons in the core of the brainstem reticular formation, which produces a widespread release of noradrenaline in the forebrain while controlling the vegetative nervous system. An indirect as well as a direct (mono-synaptic) retino-brainstem pathway is hypothesized to rise from a subtype of intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (iPRGCs), subtype M1, which do stain for Brn3b, and project to the pre-tectal region (including the olivary pre-tectal nucleus). This pathway provides profuse axon collaterals, which spread to the periacqueductal gray and dorsal raphe nuclei. According to this evidence, a retino-reticular monosynaptic system occurs, which powerfully modulate the noradrenergic hub of reticular nuclei in the lateral column of the brainstem reticular formation. These nuclei, which are evidenced in the present study, provide the anatomical basis to induce behavioral and cardiovascular modulation. The occurrence of a highly interconnected network within these nuclei is responsible for light driven plastic effects, which may alter persistently behavior and vegetative functions as the consequence of long-lasting alterations in the environmental light stimulation of the retina. These changes, which occur within the core of an archaic circuitry such as the noradrenaline-containing neurons of the reticular formation, recapitulate, within the CNS, ancestral effects of light-driven changes, which can be detected already within the retina itself at the level of multipotent photic cells.

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