Background: The neurotrophins, which include nerve growth factor (NGF), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), neurotrophin-3 (NT-3), NT-4/5 and NT-6, are a family of proteins that play fundamental roles in the differentiation, survival and maintenance of peripheral and central neurons. Much research has focused on the role of neurotrophins as target-derived, retrogradely transported trophic molecules. Although there is recent evidence that BDNF and NT-3 can be transported in an anterograde direction along peripheral and central axons, there is as yet no conclusive evidence that these anterograde factors have direct post-synaptic actions.
Results: We report that BDNF travels in an anterograde direction along the optic nerve. The anterogradely transported BDNF had rapid effects on retinal target neurons in the superior colliculus and lateral geniculate nucleus of the brain. When endogenous BDNF within the developing superior colliculus was neutralised, the rate of programmed neuronal death increased. Conversely, provision of an afferent supply of BDNF prevented the degeneration of geniculate neurons after removal of their cortical target.
Conclusions: BDNF released from retinal ganglion cells acts as a survival factor for post-synaptic neurons in retinal target fields.