The diaphragm is driven by phrenic motoneurons that are located in the cervical spinal cord. Although the anatomical location of the phrenic nucleus and the function of phrenic motoneurons at a single cellular level have been extensively analyzed, the spatiotemporal dynamics of phrenic motoneuron group activity have not been fully elucidated. In the present study, we analyzed the functional and structural characteristics of respiratory neuron population in the cervical spinal cord at the level of the phrenic nucleus by voltage imaging, together with histological analysis of neuronal and astrocytic distribution in the cervical spinal cord. We found spatially distinct two cellular populations that exhibited synchronized inspiratory activity on the transversely cut plane at C4–C5 levels and on the ventral surface of the mid cervical spinal cord in the isolated brainstem–spinal cord preparation of the neonatal rat. Inspiratory activity of one group emerged in the central portion of the ventral horn that corresponded to the central motor column, and the other appeared in the medial portion of the ventral horn that corresponded to the medial motor column. We identified by retrogradely labeling study that the anatomical distributions of phrenic and scalene motoneurons coincided with optically detected central and medial motor regions, respectively. Furthermore, we anatomically demonstrated closely located features of putative motoneurons, interneurons and astrocytes in these regions. Collectively, we report that phrenic and scalene motoneuron populations show synchronized inspiratory activities with distinct anatomical locations in the mid cervical spinal cord.
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