Blackwell Publishing Journal Backfiles 1879-2005
During development, nerve growth factor (NGF) regulates the density and character of peripheral target innervation (Barde, Neuron, 2, 1525–1534, 1989; Ritter et al., Soc. Neurosci. Abstr., 17, 546.2, 1991); its role in adult animals is less well defined. Here we have asked if the availability of growth factors such as NGF in peripheral tissues can influence the pattern of primary afferent connections in the CNS. Using osmotic minipumps, we raised the levels of NGF in rat skeletal muscle in vivo, a tissue where the levels of this factor are normally very low (Korsching and Thoenen, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 80, 3513–3516, 1983; Shelton and Reichardt, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 81, 7951–7955, 1984; Goedert et al., Mol. Brain Res., 1, 85–92, 1986). After 2 weeks of treatment we asked if the sensory neurons innervating this tissue showed an altered strength and distribution of connections with dorsal horn neurons. The contralateral (vehicle-treated) muscle, and totally untreated animals, served as controls. In normal and vehicle-treated animals, electrical stimulation of muscle afferents excited relatively few neurons in the dorsal horn, and these generally showed only weak responses. In contrast, on the NGF-treated side many more dorsal horn neurons in the lumbar enlargement of the spinal cord were excited by muscle afferents. The increased responsiveness could not be explained by a generalized increase in dorsal horn excitability, since spontaneous activity was not enhanced, nor by a change in A-fibre-mediated inhibitions from the treated afferents. Thus, these afferents appeared to establish new synaptic connections or strengthened previously weak ones as a result of increased neurotrophic factor availability. The data suggest that, in the adult rat, the levels of growth factors in peripheral targets may be used to regulate an appropriate degree of afferent connectivity within the central nervous system.
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