Pharmacological studies of narcoleptic canines indicate that exaggerated pontine cholinergic transmission promotes cataplexy. As disruption of orexin (hypocretin) signaling is a primary defect in narcolepsy with cataplexy, we investigated whether markers of cholinergic synaptic transmission might be altered in mice constitutively lacking orexin receptors (double receptor knockout; DKO). mRNA for Choline acetyltransferase (ChAT), vesicular acetylcholine transporter (VAChT) and the high-affinity choline transporter (CHT1) but not acetylcholinesterase (AChE) was significantly higher in samples from DKO than wild-type (WT) mice. This was region-specific; levels were elevated in samples from the laterodorsal tegmental nucleus (LDT) and the fifth motor nucleus (Mo5) but not in whole brainstem samples. Consistent with region-specific changes, we were unable to detect significant differences in Western blots for ChAT and CHT1 in isolates from brainstem, thalamus and cortex or in ChAT enzymatic activity in the pons. However, using ChAT immunocytochemistry, we found that while the number of cholinergic neurons in the LDT and Mo5 were not different, the intensity of somatic ChAT immunostaining was significantly greater in the LDT, but not Mo5, from DKO than from WT mice. We also found that ChAT activity was significantly reduced in cortical samples from DKO compared with WT mice. Collectively, these findings suggest that the orexins can regulate neurotransmitter expression and that the constitutive absence of orexin signaling results in an up-regulation of the machinery necessary for cholinergic neurotransmission in a mesopontine population of neurons that have been associated with both normal rapid eye movement sleep and cataplexy.
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