Urotensin II is a neuropeptide first isolated from fish and later found in mammals: where it has potent cardiovascular, endocrine and behavioral effects. In rat brain the urotensin II receptor (UII-R) is predominately expressed in the cholinergic neurons of the pedunculopontine (PPTg) and laterodorsal tegmental nuclei. Typically, the function of the PPTg has been examined using excitotoxins, destroying both cholinergic and non-cholinergic neurons, which confounds interpretation. We took advantage of UII-R's unique expression profile, by combining UII with diphtheria toxin, to engineer a toxin specific for cholinergic neurons of the PPTg. In vitro, two different toxin constructs were shown to selectively activate UII-R (average EC50 approximately 30 nmol/L; calcium mobility assay) and to be 10,000-fold more toxic to UII-R expressing CHO cells, than wildtype cells (average LD50 approximately 2 nmol/L; cell viability). In vivo, pressure injection into the PPTg of rats, resulted in specific loss of choline transporter and NADPH diaphorase positive neurons known to express the UII-R. The lesions developed over time, resulting in the loss of over 80% of cholinergic neurons at 21 days, with little damage to surrounding neurons. This is the first highly selective molecular tool for the depletion of mesopontine cholinergic neurons. The toxin will help to functionally dissect the pedunculopontine and laterodorsal tegmental nuclei, and advance the understanding of the functions of these structures.
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