Vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) has been suggested to be a mediator of vagal inhibition of airway tone and it has been assumed that VIP-containing nerve fibres in the airway arise from intrinsic ganglia. We have used a combination of double- and triple-labelling immunohistochemistry, retrograde axonal tracing, organotypic culture and nerve lesion studies, to identify the origin and distribution of neurons containing immunoreactivity (IR) to VIP in guinea pig airway smooth muscle. We also investigated whether immunoreactivity to other neuropeptides coexisted with VIP-IR within these neurons. We found that all VIP-IR nerve fibres in guinea pig tracheal smooth muscle also contained IR to neuropeptide Y (NPY) but not to tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), a marker for noradrenergic neurons. Both VIP-IR and NPY-IR were absent from nerve cell bodies in the tracheal plexus. After maintenance of isolated trachea in organotypic culture for 4 days, to allow degeneration of extrinsic nerve fibres, nerve fibres containing VIP-IR or NPY-IR were almost completely absent from tracheal smooth muscle. Of ganglia known to supply the trachea, coexistence of VIP-IR and NPY-IR was found only in cell bodies of the stellate ganglion. Retrograde tracing studies using the fluorescent tracer, DiI, confirmed that the stellate ganglion was the site of origin of neurons containing VIP-IR and NPY-IR supplying the airways. These neurons projected to the airways from the stellate ganglion both directly through the mediastinum, and via the cervical sympathetic trunk and vagus nerves. These results suggest that nerve fibres containing both VIP-IR and NPY-IR in the tracheal smooth muscle of the guinea pig are derived from non-noradrenergic cell bodies in the stellate ganglion. The absence of VIP-IR from vagal post-ganglionic neurons suggests that VIP cannot be a mediator of vagal inhibitory transmission in tracheal smooth muscle of this species. © 1992.
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