Using a sensitive and quantitative method, the mRNA levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) were determined during the development of the chick visual system. Low copy numbers were detected, and BDNF was found to be expressed in the optic tectum already 2 days before the arrival of the first retinal ganglion cell axons, suggesting an early role of BDNF in tectal development. After the beginning of tectal innervation, BDNF mRNA levels markedly increased, and optic stalk transection at day 4 (which prevents subsequent tectal innervation) was found to reduce the contralateral tectal levels of BDNF mRNA. Comparable reductions were obtained after injection of tetrodotoxin into one eye, indicating that, already during the earliest stages of target encounter in the CNS, the degree of BDNF gene expression is influenced by activity-dependent mechanisms. BDNF mRNA was also detected in the retina itself and at levels comparable to those found in the tectum. Together with previous findings indicating that BDNF prevents the death of cultured chick retinal ganglion cells, these results support the idea that the tightly controlled expression of the BDNF gene might be important in the co-ordinated development of the visual system.

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