Disruption and consequent reorganization of central nervous system circuits following traumatic brain injury may manifest as functional deficits and behavioral morbidities. We previously reported axotomy and neuronal atrophy in the ventral basal (VB) complex of the thalamus, without gross degeneration after experimental diffuse brain injury in adult rats. Pathology in VB coincided with the development of late-onset aberrant behavioral responses to whisker stimulation, which lead to the current hypothesis that neurodegeneration after experimental diffuse brain injury includes the primary somatosensory barrel cortex (S1BF), which receives projection of VB neurons and mediates whisker somatosensation. Over 28 days after midline fluid percussion brain injury, argyrophilic reaction product within superficial layers and layer IV barrels at 1 day progresses into the cortex to subcortical white matter by 7 days, and selective inter-barrel septa and subcortical white matter labeling at 28 days. Cellular consequences were determined by stereological estimates of neuronal nuclear volumes and number. In all cortical layers, neuronal nuclear volumes significantly atrophied by 42-49% at 7 days compared to sham, which marginally attenuated by 28 days. Concomitantly, the number of healthy neurons was reduced by 34-45% at 7 days compared to sham, returning to control levels by 28 days. Progressive neurodegeneration, including argyrophilic reaction product and neuronal nuclear atrophy, indicates injury-induced damage and reorganization of the reciprocal thalamocortical projections that mediate whisker somatosensation. The rodent whisker barrel circuit may serve as a discrete model to evaluate the causes and consequences of circuit reorganization after diffuse brain injury.
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