Normally occurring neuron death and that brought about by prior removal of the peripheral target organ was studied ultrastructurally in embryonic chick ciliary ganglion in order to better understand the mechanism of cell death in this system. Before the period of cell death, all neurons in the normal ganglion developed a well-organized rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER) which coincided with peripheral synapse formation. None of the peripherally deprived neurons underwent this change, suggesting that some interaction with the periphery, possibly synapse formation, triggered them into the secretory state. Cell death in peripherally deprived neurons was signalled by nuclear changes followed by freeing of ribosomes from polysomes and RER and presumably cessation of protein synthesis. In contrast, normal cell death was brought about by dilation of the RER with eventual cytoplasmic disruption, nuclear changes appearing only secondarily. It is suggested that failure to form or maintain peripheral synapses could result in the accumulation of transmission-related proteins with consequent cisternal dilation, and eventual cell death.

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