We have investigated the potential regulatory role of TGF-beta in the interactions of neurons and Schwann cells using an in vitro myelinating system. Purified populations of neurons and Schwann cells, grown alone or in coculture, secrete readily detectable levels of the three mammalian isoforms of TGF-beta; in each case, virtually all of the TGF-beta activity detected is latent. Expression of TGF-beta 1, a major isoform produced by Schwann cells, is specifically and significantly downregulated as a result of axon/Schwann cell interactions. Treatment of Schwann cells or Schwann cell/neuron cocultures with TGF-beta 1, in turn, has dramatic effects on proliferation and differentiation. In the case of purified Schwann cells, treatment with TGF-beta 1 increases their proliferation, and it promotes a pre- or nonmyelinating Schwann cell phenotype characterized by increased NCAM expression, decreased NGF receptor expression, inhibition of the forskolin-mediated induction of the myelin protein P0, and induction of the Schwann cell transcription factor suppressed cAMP-inducible POU protein. Addition of TGF-beta 1 to the cocultures inhibits many of the effects of the axon on Schwann cells, antagonizing the proliferation induced by contact with neurons, and, strikingly, blocking myelination. Ultrastructural analysis of the treated cultures confirmed the complete inhibition of myelination and revealed only rudimentary ensheathment of axons. Associated defects of the Schwann cell basal lamina and reduced expression of laminin were also detected. These effects of TGF-beta 1 on Schwann cell differentiation are likely to be direct effects on the Schwann cells themselves which express high levels of TGF-beta 1 receptors when cocultured with neurons. The regulated expression of TGF-beta 1 and its effects on Schwann cells suggest that it may be an important autocrine and paracrine mediator of neuron/Schwann cell interactions. During development, TGF-beta 1 could serve as an inhibitor of Schwann cell proliferation and myelination, whereas after peripheral nerve injury, it may promote the transition of Schwann cells to a proliferating, nonmyelinating phenotype, and thereby enhance the regenerative response.

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