Open Access Research article

Adenoviral vectors for highly selective gene expression in central serotonergic neurons reveal quantal characteristics of serotonin release in the rat brain

Kheira Benzekhroufa, Beihui Liu, Feige Tang, Anja G Teschemacher* and Sergey Kasparov*

Author Affiliations

Department of Physiology and Pharmacology University of Bristol, BS8 1TD, UK

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BMC Biotechnology 2009, 9:23  doi:10.1186/1472-6750-9-23

Published: 19 March 2009



5-hydroxytryptamine (5 HT, serotonin) is one of the key neuromodulators in mammalian brain, but many fundamental properties of serotonergic neurones and 5 HT release remain unknown. The objective of this study was to generate an adenoviral vector system for selective targeting of serotonergic neurones and apply it to study quantal characteristics of 5 HT release in the rat brain.


We have generated adenoviral vectors which incorporate a 3.6 kb fragment of the rat tryptophan hydroxylase-2 (TPH-2) gene which selectively (97% co-localisation with TPH-2) target raphe serotonergic neurones. In order to enhance the level of expression a two-step transcriptional amplification strategy was employed. This allowed direct visualization of serotonergic neurones by EGFP fluorescence. Using these vectors we have performed initial characterization of EGFP-expressing serotonergic neurones in rat organotypic brain slice cultures. Fluorescent serotonergic neurones were identified and studied using patch clamp and confocal Ca2+ imaging and had features consistent with those previously reported using post-hoc identification approaches. Fine processes of serotonergic neurones could also be visualized in un-fixed tissue and morphometric analysis suggested two putative types of axonal varicosities. We used micro-amperometry to analyse the quantal characteristics of 5 HT release and found that central 5 HT exocytosis occurs predominantly in quanta of ~28000 molecules from varicosities and ~34000 molecules from cell bodies. In addition, in somata, we observed a minority of large release events discharging on average ~800000 molecules.


For the first time quantal release of 5 HT from somato-dendritic compartments and axonal varicosities in mammalian brain has been demonstrated directly and characterised. Release from somato-dendritic and axonal compartments might have different physiological functions. Novel vectors generated in this study open a host of new experimental opportunities and will greatly facilitate further studies of the central serotonergic system.