Postmitotic sympathetic neuronal survival is dependent upon nerve growth factor (NGF) provided by peripheral targets, and this dependency serves as a central tenet of the neurotrophic hypothesis. In some other systems, NGF has been shown to play an autocrine role, although the pervasiveness and significance of this phenomenon within the nervous system remain unclear. We show here that rat sympathetic neurons synthesize and secrete NGF. NGF mRNA is expressed in nearly half of superior cervical ganglion sympathetic neurons at embryonic day 17, rising to over 90% in the early postnatal period, and declining in the adult. Neuronal immunoreactivity is reduced when retrograde transport is interrupted by axotomy, but persists in a subpopulation of neurons despite diminished mRNA expression, suggesting that intrinsic protein synthesis occurs. Cultured neonatal neurons express NGF mRNA, which is maintained even when they are undergoing apoptosis. To determine which NGF isoforms are secreted, we performed metabolic labeling and immunoprecipitation of NGF-immunoreactive proteins synthesized by cultured NGF-dependent and -independent neurons. Conditioned medium contained high molecular weight NGF precursor proteins, which varied depending upon the state of NGF dependence. Mature NGF was undetectable by these methods. High molecular weight NGF isoforms were also detected in ganglion homogenates, and persisted at diminished levels following axotomy. We conclude that sympathetic neurons express NGF mRNA, and synthesize and secrete pro-NGF protein. These findings suggest that a potential NGF-sympathetic neuron autocrine loop may exist in this prototypic target-dependent system, but that the secreted forms of this neurotrophin apparently do not support neuronal survival.
Copyright 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Neurobiol 38-53, 2003