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J Biol Chem. 2002 Mar 29;277(13):11410-5. Epub 2002 Jan 3.

Paracrine and autocrine functions of neuronal vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) in the central nervous system.

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  • 1Department of Pathology, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut 06510, USA.


Recent data have demonstrated that vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is expressed by subsets of neurons, coincident with angiogenesis within the developing cerebral cortex. Here we investigate the characteristics of VEGF expression by neurons and test the hypothesis that VEGF may serve both paracrine and autocrine functions in the developing central nervous system. To begin to address these questions, we assayed expression of VEGF and one of its potential receptors, Flk-1 (VEGFR-2), in the embryonic mouse forebrain and embryonic cortical neurons grown in vitro. Both VEGF and Flk-1 are present in subsets of post-mitotic neurons in vivo and in vitro. Moreover, VEGF levels are up-regulated in neuronal cultures subjected to hypoxia, consistent with our previous results in vivo. While the abundance of Flk-1 is unaffected by hypoxia, the receptor exhibits a higher level of tyrosine phosphorylation, as do downstream signaling kinases, including extracellular signal-regulated protein kinase, p90RSK and STAT3a, demonstrating activation of the VEGF pathway. These same signaling components also exhibited higher tyrosine phosphorylation levels in response to exogenous addition of rVEGFA(165). This activation was diminished in the presence of specific inhibitors of Flk-1 function and agents that sequester VEGF, resulting in a dose-dependent increase in apoptosis in these neuronal cultures. Further, inhibition of MEK resulted in increased apoptosis, while inhibition of phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase had no appreciable affect. In addition to the novel function for VEGF that we describe in neuronal survival, neuronal VEGF also affected the organization and differentiation of brain endothelial cells in a three-dimensional culture paradigm, consistent with its more traditional role as a vascular agent. Thus, our in vitro data support a role for neuronal VEGF in both paracrine and autocrine signaling in the maintenance of neurons and endothelia in the central nervous system.

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