Many neurotrophic factors have been shown to enhance survival of embryonic motor neurons or affect their response to injury. Few studies have investigated the potential effects of neurotrophic factors on more mature motor neurons that might be relevant for neurodegenerative diseases. Using organotypic spinal cord cultures from postnatal rats, we have demonstrated that insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) and glial-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) significantly increase choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) activity, but brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), neurotrophin-4 (NT- 4/5), and neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) do not. Surprisingly, ciliary neurotrophic factors (CNTF) actually reduces ChAT activity compared to age-matched control cultures. Neurotrophic factors have also been shown to alter the sensitivity of some neurons to glutamate neurotoxicity, a postulated mechanism of injury in the neurodegenerative disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Incubation of organotypic spinal cord cultures in the presence of the glutamate transport inhibitor threo-hydroxyaspartate (THA) reproducibly causes death of motor neurons which is glutamate-mediated. In this model of motor neuron degeneration, IGF-I, GDNF, and NT-4/5 are potently neuroprotective, but BDNF, CNTF, and NT-3 are not. The organotypic glutamate toxicity model appears to be the best preclinical predictor to date of success in human clinical trials in ALS.
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