Neuronal membranes from rat dorsal root ganglia provide a mitogenic signal to cultured Schwann cells and it has been suggested this is an important factor in regulating Schwann cell numbers during development. In this study, the influence of enteric neurons on the DNA synthesis of both Schwann cells and enteric glia has been investigated as well as the effect of axonal membrane fractions (axolemma) on enteric glia. The proliferation rate of rat Schwann cells and enteric glia was assessed in culture using [3H]thymidine uptake and autoradiography in combination with immunolabelling to identify cell types. When purified rat Schwann cells were co-cultured with guinea pig enteric neurons, their DNA synthesis rate was reduced compared with control cultures of pure Schwann cells or Schwann cells not close to neurites or neuronal cell bodies. Nevertheless, in accordance with previous findings that sensory neurons stimulate Schwann cell division, these Schwann cells increased their DNA synthesis rate when in contact with neurites from purified guinea pig or adult rat dorsal root ganglion neurons and on exposure to bovine axolemmal fractions. The enteric neurons also suppressed the DNA synthesis of enteric glia in co-cultures of purified enteric neurons and enteric glia, while bovine axolemma stimulated their DNA synthesis. These results indicate that a mitotic inhibitory signal is associated with enteric neurons and can exert its effect on both Schwann cells and enteric glia, and that enteric glia, like Schwann cells, are stimulated to divide by axolemmal fractions. It thus seems possible that during development glial cell numbers in the peripheral nervous system may be controlled by both positive and negative regulators of cell growth.

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