We have developed an experimental paradigm to study the mechanism by which nerve growth factor (NGF) allows the survival of sympathetic neurons. Dissociated sympathetic neurons from embryonic day-21 rats were grown in vitro for 7 d in the presence of NGF. Neurons were then deprived of trophic support by adding anti-NGF antiserum, causing them to die between 24 and 48 h later. Ultrastructural changes included disruption of neurites, followed by cell body changes characterized by an accumulation of lipid droplets, changes in the nuclear membrane, and dilation of the rough endoplasmic reticulum. No primary alterations of mitochondria or lysosomes were observed. The death of NGF-deprived neurons was characterized biochemically by assessing [35S]methionine incorporation into TCA precipitable protein and by measuring the release of the cytosolic enzyme adenylate kinase into the culture medium. Methionine incorporation began to decrease approximately 18 h post-deprivation and was maximally depressed by 36 h. Adenylate kinase began to appear in the culture medium approximately 30 h after deprivation, reaching a maximum by 54 h. The death of NGF-deprived neurons was entirely prevented by inhibiting protein or RNA synthesis. Cycloheximide, puromycin, anisomycin, actinomycin-D, and dichlorobenzimidazole riboside all prevented neuronal death subsequent to NGF deprivation as assessed by the above morphologic and biochemical criteria. The fact that sympathetic neurons must synthesize protein and RNA to die when deprived of NGF indicates that NGF, and presumably other neurotrophic factors, maintains neuronal survival by suppressing an endogenous, active death program.

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