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In the hippocampus, granule cells of the dentate gyrus form distinctive unmyelinated axons that project along the mossy fiber pathway to the CA3 region. The axons emerge from the basal portions of the granule cells and pass through the hilus (or polymorphic cell layer) of the dentate gyrus before entering the stratum lucidum of CA3. Granule cells tend to be glutamatergic, and hence "excitatory," although some show immunoreactivity for opiate peptides such as dynorphin and enkaphalin.
The pathway was so named by Ramon y Cajal because the axons display varicosities all along their lengths, giving them a "mossy" appearance. They are technically known as thorny excrescences, and are located at 140-um intervals. They are spine-like branchings of the axon that provide innervation to a cell while the axon continues forward to innervate more cells. It has since been shown that the axons of granule cells synapse with a wide variety of inhibitory GABA interneurons in the hilar region of the dentate gyrus before continuing on to innervate pyramidal cells in the CA3 region. A single mossy fiber projection may make as many as 37 contacts with a single pyramidal cell, but innervates only about a dozen different pyramidal cells. In contrast, a single CA3 pyramidal cell receives input from about 50 different granule cells.
- Dale Purves et al. (2001). Neuroscience, Sunderland, Mass: Sinauer Associates. ISBN 0-87893-742-0.
- Gordon M. Shepherd (1998). The synaptic organization of the brain, Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-511824-3.
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