1. The floor plate is a ventral mid‐line structure that plays a pivotal role in the organization of the developing vertebrate central nervous system. Previous studies have demonstrated that the floor plate may provide signals that induce neuronal differentiation and guide axons; however, it is not known whether the floor plate can itself respond to signals that derive from surrounding tissue. 2. The peptide substance P is one of the first transmitters to be expressed in the developing spinal cord. To determine whether the floor plate may respond to substance P we have examined the expression of the principal substance P receptor (the tachykinin NK1 receptor) by floor plate cells of the rat embryonic spinal cord using immunocytochemistry, in situ hybridization and fura‐2 calcium imaging. 3. Immunocytochemistry demonstrated selective expression of the NK1 receptor by cells at the ventral mid‐line of the spinal cord. Double immunofluorescence labelling with the specific floor plate marker FP3 indicated that NK1 receptor expression is confined to cells in the lateral region of the floor plate. 4. In order to confirm the specificity of the NK1 receptor immunoreactivity we performed in situ hybridization histochemistry using antisense cRNA probes directed against the NK1 receptor. In situ hybridization demonstrated selective expression of NK1 receptor mRNA by floor plate cells. 5. The ontogeny of NK1 receptor protein and mRNA expression in the floor plate was defined. NK1 receptor expression occurred in a rostrocaudal progression that begins at embryonic day 10‐11 (E10‐E11) and is complete by E12‐E14. The restriction of NK1 receptor expression to the lateral part of the floor plate was conserved throughout embryonic development. 6. NK1 receptor signalling was assessed by monitoring substance P‐evoked changes in the intracellular concentration of calcium ions ([Ca2+]i) of acutely dissociated cells from the floor plate region. Application of substance P (5 nM) elevated [Ca2+]i in 10% of cells examined. 7. Selective neurokinin agonists were used to identify the receptor subtype involved in the substance P‐evoked elevation of [Ca2+]i. Acetyl‐[Arg6,Sar9,Met(O2)11]‐substance P(6‐11) (5 nM) and [Sar9,Met(O2)11]‐substance P (5 nM), two highly selective NK1 receptor agonists, both elevated [Ca2+]i in floor plate cells that responded to substance P. [beta‐Ala8]‐neurokinin A(4‐10) (50 nM) and senktide (50 nM), selective agonists respectively of NK2 and NK3 receptors, had no effect on [Ca2+]i.
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