Previous retrograde tracing studies on rat and guinea-pig showed a projection of sensory tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive neurons to the region of the carotid bifurcation via the carotid sinus nerve. In the present study, focussing on the sensory innervation of the human carotid body, antisera to tyrosine hydroxylase and other catecholamine synthesizing enzymes were applied for an immunohistochemical investigation of carotid bodies obtained at autopsy. In addition, an array of antisera directed to non-enzyme antigens known to be present in viscero-afferent neurons were incorporated in the study. The glomic lobules consisting of glomus cells and sustentacular cells contained a variable number of enzyme-immunoreactive glomus cells. Arteries were supplied by nerve fibres displaying the full phenotype of sympathetic noradrenergic axons, i.e. immunoreactivity to tyrosine hydroxylase, aromatic-L-amino-acid-decarboxylase and dopamine-??-hydroxylase. The glomic lobules, however, were densely innervated by tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive axons lacking immunoreactivity to aromatic-L-amino-acid-decarboxylase and dopamine-??-hydroxylase. These fibres reacted with neurofilament160kD-antibody but were devoid of immunoreactivity to all neuropeptides tested (calcitonin gene-related peptide, somatostatin, substance P). Ultrastructurally, tyrosine hydroxylase/neuronlament160kD-immunoreactive axons gave rise to large axonal swellings filled with mitochondria and vesicles, and established extensive contacts to glomus cells. Nerve bundles surrounded by a perineural sheath contained both myelinated (2.0-2.8 ??m in diameter) and unmyelinated (0.14-3.0 ??m) tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive axons. Most of the unmyelinated immunoreactive axons were running singularly within a Schwann cell-sheath. Judged from the pattern of immunoreactivities as well as their preterminal and terminal ultrastructure, tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive axons innervating glomus cells are of sensory origin. Although final proof by retrograde tracing cannot be presented in man, this conclusion is supported by experimental evidence in laboratory animals. The myelinated immunoreactive axons correspond to chemoreceptor A-fibres whereas the classification of the large unmyelinated immunoreactive axons has yet to be established. The lack of immunoreactivity to the dopamine-synthesizing enzyme, aromatic-l-amino-acid-decarboxylase, in this fibre type does not support the view of dopamine being the primary transmitter of chemoreceptor afferents. ?? 1992.
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