Phrenic motoneuron structural plasticity across models of diaphragm muscle paralysis

Carlos B. Mantilla, Wen Zhi Zhan, Heather M. Gransee, Y. S. Prakash, Gary C. Sieck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Structural plasticity in motoneurons may be influenced by activation history and motoneuron–muscle fiber interactions. The goal of this study was to examine the morphological adaptations of phrenic motoneurons following imposed motoneuron inactivity while controlling for diaphragm muscle inactivity. Well-characterized rat models were used including unilateral C2 spinal hemisection (SH; ipsilateral phrenic motoneurons and diaphragm muscle are inactive) and tetrodotoxin phrenic nerve blockade (TTX; ipsilateral diaphragm muscle is paralyzed while phrenic motoneuron activity is preserved). We hypothesized that inactivity of phrenic motoneurons would result in a decrease in motoneuron size, consistent with a homeostatic increase in excitability. Phrenic motoneurons were retrogradely labeled by ipsilateral diaphragm muscle injection of fluorescent dextrans or cholera toxin subunit B. Following 2 weeks of diaphragm muscle paralysis, morphological parameters of labeled ipsilateral phrenic motoneurons were assessed quantitatively using fluorescence confocal microscopy. Compared to controls, phrenic motoneuron somal volumes and surface areas decreased with SH, but increased with TTX. Total phrenic motoneuron surface area was unchanged by SH, but increased with TTX. Dendritic surface area was estimated from primary dendrite diameter using a power equation obtained from three-dimensional reconstructed phrenic motoneurons. Estimated dendritic surface area was not significantly different between control and SH, but increased with TTX. Similarly, TTX significantly increased total phrenic motoneuron surface area. These results suggest that ipsilateral phrenic motoneuron morphological adaptations are consistent with a normalization of motoneuron excitability following prolonged alterations in motoneuron activity. Phrenic motoneuron structural plasticity is likely more dependent on motoneuron activity (or descending input) than muscle fiber activity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2973-2983
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Comparative Neurology
Issue number18
StatePublished - Dec 15 2018


  • RRID:RGD_5508397
  • RRID:SCR_001775
  • RRID:SCR_005988
  • respiratory muscles
  • spinal cord injury
  • tetrodotoxin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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