We followed developmental changes in 'barreloid' thalamocortical relay cell (TCR) dendritic arbors between postnatal day 5 (P5; birth = PO) and adulthood. Single neurons in 150- to 250-μm coronal or oblique slices through the somatosensory thalamus in mice of different postnatal ages were injected with lucifer yellow (LY) under direct visualization. Filled cells in the ventroposterior medial nucleus (VPM) were imaged with a confocal microscope, and rendered and analyzed on a computer workstation with special-purpose software. The whisker representation in the thalamus, as revealed by the pattern of barreloids, was demonstrated by oblique illumination of the slices and/or later cytochrome oxidase (CO) staining. VPM cross-sectional area trebles from P5 to adulthood. Barreloids (single-whisker representations) are well delineated in unstained sections until P10-P11; thereafter, barreloids can only be recognized with difficulty with the CO stain. Thalamocortical relay cell (TCR) somal volumes increase rapidly in the first 2 weeks. The number of primary dendrites does not change, nor does the length of the primary dendritic segments, from P5 to adulthood; however, distal dendritic segments elongate and increase in number. Dendritic arbors are confined on P5 to single barreloids; in adults they extend to adjacent barreloids. The postnatal transformation of dendritic arbors by process growth to adjacent barreloids is mainly completed by P18. A change in the developmental role of these cells, from instructing whisker pattern formation to integrating sensory information from more than one whisker, thus occurs after the whisker pattern in the barrel cortex is established. It coincides with the age at which animals are known to begin exploratory whisking behaviors. The mechanism appears to be by growth and remodeling of distal dendrites rather than by oriented growth and regression, as has been reported for stellate cells in cortical whisker barrels.
- Confocal microscopy