Nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) are molecules which regulate the development and maintenance of specific functions in different populations of peripheral and central neurons, amongst them sensory neurons of neural crest and placode origin. Under physiological conditions NGF is synthesized by peripheral target tissues, whereas BDNF synthesis is highest in the CNS. This situation changes dramatically after lesion of peripheral nerves. As previously shown, there is a marked rapid increase in NGF mRNA in the nonneuronal cells of the damaged nerve. The prolonged elevation of NGF mRNA levels is related to the immigration of activated macrophages, interleukin-1 being the most essential mediator of this effect. Here we show that transsection of the rat sciatic nerve also leads to a very marked increase in BDNF mRNA, the final levels being even ten times higher than those of NGF mRNA. However, the time-course and spatial pattern of BDNF mRNA expression are distinctly different. There is a continuous slow increase of BDNF mRNA starting after day 3 post-lesion and reaching maximal levels 3-4 wk later. These distinct differences suggest different mechanisms of regulation of NGF and BDNF synthesis in non-neuronal cells of the nerve. This was substantiated by the demonstration of differential regulation of these mRNAs in organ culture of rat sciatic nerve and Schwann cell culture. Furthermore, using bioassays and specific antibodies we showed that cultured Schwann cells are a rich source of BDNF- and ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF)-like neurotrophic activity in addition to NGF. Antisera raised against a BDNF-peptide demonstrated BDNF-immunoreactivity in pure cultured Schwann cells, but not in fibroblasts derived from sciatic nerve.

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