The effect of nerve growth factor (NGF) on the development of cholinergic sympathetic neurons was studied in cultures grown either on monolayers of dissociated rat heart cells or in medium conditioned by them. In the presence of rat heart cells the absolute requirement of neurons for exogenous NGF was partially spared. The ability of heart cells to support neuronal survival was due at least in part to production of a diffusable NGF-like substance into the medium. Although some neurons survived on the heart cell monolayer without added NGF, increased levels of exogenous NGF increased neuronal survival until saturation was achieved at 0.5 microgram/ml 7S NGF. The ability of neurons to produce acetylcholine (ACh) from choline was also dependent on the level of exogenous NGF. In mixed neuron-heart cell cultures, NGF increased both ACh and catecholamine (CA) production per neuron to the same extent; saturation occurred at 1 microgram/ml 7S NGF. As cholinergic neurons developed in culture, they became less dependent on NGF for survival and ACh production, but even in older cultures approximately 40% of the neurons died when NGF was withdrawn. Thus, NGF is as necessary for survival, growth, and differentiation of sympathetic neurons when the neurons express cholinergic functions as when the neurons express adrenergic functions (4, 5).

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