Objective: Perineuronal nets (PN) form a specialized extracellular matrix around certain highly active neurons within the central nervous system and may help to stabilize synaptic contacts, promote local ion homeostasis, or play a protective role. Within the ocular motor system, excitatory burst neurons and omnipause neurons are highly active cells that generate rapid eye movements - saccades; both groups of neurons contain the calcium-binding protein parvalbumin and are ensheathed by PN. Experimental lesions of excitatory burst neurons and omnipause neurons cause slowing or complete loss of saccades. Selective palsy of saccades in humans is reported following cardiac surgery, but such cases have shown normal brainstem neuroimaging, with only one clinicopathological study that demonstrated paramedian pontine infarction. Our objective was to test the hypothesis that lesions of PN surrounding these brainstem saccade-related neurons may cause saccadic palsy. Methods: Together with four controls we studied the brain of a patient who had developed a permanent selective saccadic palsy following cardiac surgery and died several years later. Sections of formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded brainstem blocks were applied to double-immunoperoxidase staining of parvalbumin and three different components of PN. Triple immunofluorescence labeling for all PN components served as internal controls. Combined immunostaining of parvalbumin and synaptophysin revealed the presence of synapses. Results: Excitatory burst neurons and omnipause neurons were preserved and still received synaptic input, but their surrounding PN showed severe loss or fragmentation. Interpretation: Our findings support current models and experimental studies of the brainstem saccadegenerating neurons and indicate that damage to PN may permanently impair the function of these neurons that the PN ensheathe. How a postulated hypoxic mechanism could selectively damage the PN remains unclear. We propose that the well-studied saccadic eye movement system provides an accessible model to evaluate the role of PN in health and disease.
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