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J Neurosci. 1997 Feb 1;17(3):1075-85.

Apoptosis and its relation to the cell cycle in the developing cerebral cortex.

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  • 1Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, University College London, United Kingdom.


Large numbers of dying cells are found in proliferating tissues, suggesting a link between cell death and cell division. We detected and quantified dying cells during pre- and early postnatal development of the rat cerebral cortex using in situ end labeling of DNA fragmentation [terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP-biotin nick end labeling (TUNEL)] and electron microscopy. The proliferative zones that give rise to the neuronal and glial cell types of the cortex, the ventricular and, to a larger extent, the subventricular zones showed higher incidence of cell death than other regions of the developing cortex during the period of neurogenesis. Gel electrophoresis of DNA isolated from the subventricular zone of newborn animals showed a ladder pattern that is characteristic of apoptosis. The number of apoptotic cells remained high in this zone for at least 2 weeks, during which period cells continued to divide. The correlation between cell division and cell death was studied in the subventricular zone of newborn rats; cumulative labeling with bromodeoxyuridine showed that 71% of TUNEL-labeled cells had taken up this S-phase marker before undergoing cell death. Using bromodeoxyuridine and [3H]-thymidine in succession to identify a cohort of proliferating cells, we found that the clearance time of TUNEL-positive nuclei was 2 hr and 20 min. A comparison between the number of mitotic figures and that of TUNEL-positive nuclei showed that cell death affects one in every 14 cells produced by dividing ventricular zone cells at embryonic day 16 and one in every 1.5 cells produced in the subventricular zone of newborn rats. In addition, we found that most of TUNEL-positive cells were in the G1 phase of their cell cycle. We conclude that apoptosis is prominent in the proliferating neuroepithelium of the developing rat cerebral cortex and that it is related to the progression of the cell cycle.

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