For survival, embryonic motoneurons in vertebrates depend on as yet undefined neurotrophic factors present in the limb bud. Members of the neurotrophin family are currently the best candidates for such neurotrophic factors, but inactivation of their receptor genes leads to only partial loss of motoneurons, which suggests that other factors are involved. Glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), originally identified as a trophic factor specific for dopaminergic neurons, was found to be 75-fold more potent than the neurotrophics in supporting the survival of purified embryonic rat motoneurons in culture. GDNF messenger RNA was found in the immediate vicinity of motoneurons during the period of cell death in development. In vivo, GDNF rescues and prevents the atrophy of facial motoneurons that have been deprived of target-derived survival factors by axotomy. GDNF may therefore be a physiological trophic factor for spinal motoneurons. Its potency and specificity in vitro and in vivo also make it a good candidate for treatment of motoneuron disease.
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