Background: We have shown previously that oligodendrocytes and their precursors require signals from other cells in order to survive in culture. In addition, we have shown that about 50% of the oligodendrocytes produced in the developing rat optic nerve normally die, apparently in a competition for the limiting amounts of survival factors. We have hypothesized that axons may control the levels of such oligodendrocyte survival factors and that the competition-dependent death of oligodendrocytes serves to match their numbers to the number of axons that they myelinate. Here we test one prediction of this hypothesis - that the survival of developing oligodendrocytes depends on axons.
Results: We show that oligodendrocyte death occurs selectively in transected nerves in which the axons degenerate. This cell death is prevented by the delivery of exogenous ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) or insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-1), both of which have been shown to promote oligodendrocyte survival in vitro. We also show that purified neurons promote the survival of purified oligodendrocytes in vitro.
Conclusion: These results strongly suggest that oligodendrocyte survival depends upon the presence of axons; they also support the hypothesis that a competition for axon-dependent survival signals normally helps adjust the number of oligodendrocytes to the number of axons that require myelination. The identities of these signals remain to be determined.