The time course of molecular events that accompany degeneration and death after nerve growth factor (NGF) deprivation and neuroprotection by NGF and other agents was examined in cultures of NGF-dependent neonatal rat sympathetic neurons and compared to death by apoptosis. Within 12 h after onset of NGF deprivation, glucose uptake, protein synthesis, and RNA synthesis fell precipitously followed by a moderate decrease of mitochondrial function. The molecular mechanisms underlying the NGF deprivation-induced decrease of protein synthesis and neuronal death were compared and found to be different, demonstrating that this decrease of protein synthesis is insufficient to cause death subsequently. After these early changes and during the onset of neuronal atrophy, inhibition of protein synthesis ceased to halt neuronal degeneration while readdition of NGF or a cAMP analogue remained neuroprotective for 6 h. This suggests a model in which a putative killer protein reaches lethal levels several hours before the neurons cease to respond to readdition of NGF with survival and become committed to die. Preceding loss of viability by 5 h and concurrent with commitment to die, the neuronal DNA fragmented into oligonucleosomes. The temporal and pharmacological characteristics of DNA fragmentation is consistent with DNA fragmentation being part of the mechanism that commits the neuron to die. The antimitotic and neurotoxin cytosine arabinoside induced DNA fragmentation in the presence of NGF, supporting previous evidence that it mimicked NGF deprivation-induced death closely. Thus trophic factor deprivation-induced death occurs by apoptosis and is an example of programmed cell death.

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