Development of the cutaneous sensory nervous system is dependent on the production of neurotrophic factors, such as nerve growth factor (NGF), by the skin. Limited synthesis of NGF in developing skin is thought to underlie programmed cell death and cause a 50% neuronal loss. This loss does not occur in transgenic mice that overexpress NGF in the skin, which have double the number of neurons (J. Neurosci. 14 (1994) 1422). To determine whether increased NGF blocks neuronal death and/or increases neuronal precursor replication, we analyzed the trigeminal ganglia at embryonic days E12.5, E14.5 and E16.5 using transferase-mediated dUTP nick-end labeling (TUNEL) and bromodeoxyuridine labeling. Results show that excess target-derived NGF causes a major decrease in the percent of TUNEL-labeled neurons without affecting the percent of replicating neurons. Analysis of RNA and protein expression suggests this block in cell death is mediated via the anti-apoptotic protein bcl-2.