Trigeminal sensory neurons develop from the neural crest and neurogenic placodes, and have been studied as a principal model of sensory neuron formation. While the Notch pathway has been extensively characterized in central nervous system development and other developmental processes, it has not been well characterized in sensory neurogenesis. Here we studied the functional role of Notch signaling in the trigeminal ophthalmic (opV) placode, a prime model of sensory neurogenesis. To establish a good spatiotemporal description of Notch pathway genes in the chick trigeminal placode, a stage-specific expression analysis was conducted, showing that expression of most Notch pathway genes and effectors are expressed in the placode, with expression primarily being confined to ectodermal cells. Expression was highest at stages of peak neuronal differentiation. To test the function of Notch signaling in opV placode cell differentiation, Notch receptor cleavage was blocked using the gamma-secretase inhibitor, DAPT, or signaling was activated by misexpression of the Notch intracellular domain (NICD). Notch activation resulted in a significant reduction in sensory neurogenesis. Cells remained in the ectoderm and did not differentiate. Expression of the opV specification marker Pax3 was also lost in targeted cells. DAPT exposure resulted in a dramatic increase in neurogenesis without increasing proliferation, where many differentiated cells were found in the mesenchyme and, surprisingly, within the ectoderm. This is the first result clearly showing prolific neuronal differentiation in the ectoderm of the trigeminal placodes after experimental manipulation of a molecular signaling pathway, thus identifying Notch signaling as a primary regulator of the sensory neuron fate in the opV placode.
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