NGF and bFGF have recently been shown to have biological activity in central neurons, but their normal functions and mechanisms of action are unknown. Since central neurons are particularly vulnerable to hypoglycemia that occurs with ischemia or insulin overdose, we tested the hypothesis that growth factors can protect neurons against hypoglycemic damage. NGF and bFGF each prevented glucose deprivation-induced neuronal damage in human cerebral cortical and rat hippocampal cell cultures (EGF was ineffective). Protection was afforded when the growth factors were administered before (NGF and bFGF) or up to 12 hr following (NGF) the onset of hypoglycemia. Direct measurements of intracellular calcium levels and manipulations of calcium influx demonstrated that sustained elevations in intracellular calcium levels mediated the hypoglycemic damage. NGF and bFGF each prevented the hypoglycemia-induced elevations of intracellular calcium. These findings indicate that growth factors can stabilize neuronal calcium homeostasis in central neurons and thereby protect them against environmental insults.
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