Light microscopic enzyme histochemistry was employed to study the alterations of acetylcholinesterase (AChE) within lumbosacral ventral horn neurons at survival times of 1, 4, 7, 14, 28, 60, and 90 days after low thoracic spinal cord hemisection in adult rats. The intensity of histochemical staining was quantified using densitometric techniques. Virtually all ventral horn neurons of sham-operated and unoperated animals, which served as controls, displayed intense AChE staining. Hemisection of the spinal cord induced a transient, ipsilateral decrease of AChE staining in most neuronal cell bodies and in the neuropil of lamina IX at all segmental levels caudal to the lesion. Quantitative analysis of representative segments revealed a reduction of AChE in the ventral horn during a postoperative (p.o.) period of 1 to 28 days followed by a phase of recovery over the next two months. AChE activity still remained slightly reduced, even at 90 days p.o. The transient decrease in AChE is a well-known metabolic response of axotomized motoneurons. However, the observed changes of AChE reactivity in intact motoneurons ipsilateral and caudal to the hemisection are presumably induced by the interruption of supraspinal descending pathways. These metabolic changes may functionally affect the whole motor unit and be involved in the disturbances of motor function following spinal cord injury.
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