Androgen and estrogen (alpha) receptor localization on periaqueductal gray neurons projecting to the rostral ventromedial medulla in the male and female rat.
The periaqueductal gray (PAG) contains numerous estrogen receptor-alpha immunoreactive (ER-alpha IR) neurons that are distributed in a species-specific way. These neurons might modulate different types of behavior that are mediated by the PAG such as active and passive coping responses, analgesia, and reproductive behavior. In primates, it is not known whether ER-alpha IR PAG neurons represent local interneurons and/or neurons that project to brainstem areas that control these behaviors. In this double labeling study, we asked whether ER-alpha IR neurons in the PAG of the rhesus monkey project to the nucleus retroambiguus (NRA), an area in the ventrolateral caudal medulla oblongata that is involved in expiration, vocalization, and reproductive behavior. Tracer was injected into the caudal lateral medulla oblongata to retrogradely label PAG neurons, and ER-alpha was visualized immunohistochemically. Although ER-alpha IR neurons and NRA-projection neurons were present at similar levels of the PAG, their distributions hardly overlapped. ER-alpha IR PAG neurons that project to the lateral caudal medulla represented less than 2% of ER-alpha IR PAG neurons. These double-labeled neurons were mainly located in the ipsilateral caudal PAG. The cluster of neurons in the medial part of the lateral PAG that projects specifically to the NRA-region did not contain double-labeled cells. The results indicate that only a few ER-alpha IR PAG neurons project to the NRA-region. This might be related to the modest effects of estrogen on mating-related behavior in primates compared most other mammalian species. Remaining ER-alpha IR PAG neurons might act locally on other PAG neurons, or they might represent neurons that project to other areas. Furthermore, the finding that the distributions of ER-alpha IR neurons and neurons that project to premotor neurons in the NRA-region scarcely overlap illustrates that the PAG in primates is very highly organized into anatomically distinct regions compared with other species.