Ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) is a potent survival molecule for a variety of embryonic neurons in culture. The developmental expression of CNTF occurs clearly after the time period of the physiological cell death of CNTF-responsive neurons. This, together with the sites of expression, excludes CNTF as a target-derived neuronal survival factor, at least in rodents. However, CNTF also participates in the induction of type 2 astrocyte differentiation in vitro. Here we demonstrate that the time course of the expression of CNTF-mRNA and protein in the rat optic nerve (as evaluated by quantitative Northern blot analysis and biological activity, respectively) is compatible with such a glial differentiation function of CNTF in vivo. We also show that the type 2 astrocyte-inducing activity previously demonstrated in optic nerve extract can be precipitated by an antiserum against CNTF. Immunohistochemical analysis of astrocytes in vitro and in vivo demonstrates that the expression of CNTF is confined to a subpopulation of type 1 astrocytes. The olfactory bulb of adult rats has comparably high levels of CNTF to the optic nerve, and here again, CNTF-immunoreactivity is localized in a subpopulation of astrocytes. However, the postnatal expression of CNTF in the olfactory bulb occurs later than in the optic nerve. In other brain regions both CNTF-mRNA and protein levels are much lower.

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