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Neuroscience. 1996 Oct;74(4):1197-208.

Dentate granule cell layer collagen explant cultures: spontaneous axonal growth and induction by brain-derived neurotrophic factor or basic fibroblast growth factor.

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Department of Neurology, University of California at San Francisco 94143, USA.


The molecular mechanisms that underlie dentate granule cell axon (i.e., mossy fiber) growth during development and following seizure-induced hippocampal injury remain unknown. Part of this process may involve specific factors that support dentate granule cells during differentiation, and molecular cues that allow the appropriate growth of mossy fiber axons toward their targets. To study this process, we developed an in vitro assay system to measure the activity of putative trophic, chemoattractant and chemorepulsive factors. Two-hundred-micrometer-thick transverse hippocampal sections were prepared from neonatal rats and microdissected to isolate the middle one-third of the superior blade of the dentate granule cell layer. These were embedded in a three-dimensional collagen matrix either alone or with microdissected regions of the CA2 pyramidal cell layer. Cultures were maintained in a defined medium and grown for two to three days in a standard culture environment. Results showed that numerous processes grew primarily from the hilar side of explants into the collagen matrix, often in excess of 500 microns in length. These were determined to be axons based on: (i) morphological criteria including size and presence of growth cones, (ii) synaptophysin and growth-associated protein-43 immunoreactivity, (iii) lack of glial fibrillary acidic protein immunoreactivity and (iv) contiguity of biocytin-filled processes with neuronal soma within the explant. Treatment of cultures with brain-derived neurotrophic factor caused a significant increase in axon number and length, and this effect was partially reversed by the addition of a trkB-immunoglobulin fusion protein that blocks the activity of brain-derived neurotrophic factor and neurotrophin-4/5. Basic fibroblast growth factor also caused a marked increase in axon number and length, and caused a migration of neuron-like cells out of the explant into the collagen. These results show that cultured dentate granule cell layer explants are capable of growing mossy fibers into a neutral collagen matrix, and the growth of axons can be modified by the addition of exogenous growth factors. Furthermore, since target tissue and point sources of purified factors can easily be co-cultured with the explants, this new system provides a direct means for testing the molecular cues that influence mossy fiber growth.

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