The peripheral receptive properties and central projections of different classes of dorsal root ganglion neurones are well characterized1,2. Much less is known about the transmitters used by these neurones. Excitatory amino acids have been proposed as sensory transmitters3 but the sensitivity of virtually all central neurones to those compounds has made it difficult to assess their precise role in sensory transmission. Several neuropeptides have been localized within discrete subclasses of primary sensory neurones that project to the superficial dorsal horn of the spinal cord 4-7 and may be afferent transmitters. However, only about one-third of spinal sensory neurones have been shown to contain neuropeptides8. We have recently described the presence of a 5′-nucleotide hydrolysing acid phosphatase in a separate subpopulation of dorsal root ganglion neurones that project to the superficial dorsal horn44. This enzyme also appears in certain autonomic and endocrine cells that contain high concentrations of releasable nucleotides in their storage granules 9-13. It is possible that the presence of this enzyme in sensory neurones is also associated with a releasable pool of nucleotides. Holton and Holton have provided evidence that ATP is released from the peripheral terminals of unmyelinated sensory fibres14 and have suggested that release of ATP might also occur from central sensory terminals. To investigate the possibility that nucleotides act as central sensory transmitters we have examined their actions on rat dorsal horn and dorsal root ganglion neurones maintained in dissociated cell culture. We report here a selective and potent excitation of subpopulations of both neuronal types by ATP.
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