Neurotrophins promote the survival of specific types of neurons during development and ensure proper maintenance and function of mature responsive neurons. Significant effects of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) on pain physiology have been reported but the contribution of this neurotrophin to the development of nociceptors has not been investigated. We present evidence that BDNF is required for the survival of a significant fraction of peptidergic and non-peptidergic nociceptors in dorsal root ganglia (DRG) postnatally. Bdnf homozygous mutant mice lose approximately half of all nociceptive neurons during the first 2 weeks of life and adult heterozygotes exhibit hypoalgesia and a loss of 25% of all nociceptive neurons. Our in vitro analyses indicate that BDNF-dependent nociceptive neurons also respond to NGF and GDNF. Expression analyses at perinatal times indicate that BDNF is predominantly produced within sensory ganglia and is more abundant than skin-derived NGF or GDNF. Function-blocking studies with BDNF specific antibodies in vitro or cultures of BDNF-deficient sensory neurons suggest that BDNF acts in an autocrine/paracrine way to promote the early postnatal survival of nociceptors that are also responsive to NGF and GDNF. Altogether, the data demonstrate an essential requirement for BDNF in the early postnatal survival of nociceptive neurons.
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