Programmed cell death (PCD) of sympathetic neurons is inhibited by nerve growth factor. However, factors that induce PCD of these cells are unknown. Leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF) and ciliary neurotrophic factor, neuropoietic cytokines known to regulate sympathetic neuron gene expression, were examined for effects on survival of cultured sympathetic neurons. Treatment with LIF or ciliary neurotrophic factor caused neuronal death in a dose-dependent fashion. Inhibition of RNA or protein synthesis, or treatment with potassium, all of which prevent PCD after nerve growth factor deprivation, prevented LIF-induced death. The morphologic and ultrastructural characteristics of the neuronal death induced by LIF and by nerve growth factor deprivation were similar. Furthermore, LIF treatment resulted in DNA fragmentation with a characteristic "ladder" on Southern blot analysis. These observations suggest that neuron numbers may be regulated by factors which initiate PCD, as well as by factors which prevent it.
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