Programmed cell death is an established developmental process in the nervous system. Whereas the regulation and the developmental role of neuronal cell death have been widely demonstrated, the relevance of cell death during early neurogenesis, the cells affected and the identity of regulatory local growth factors remain poorly characterized. We have previously described specific in vivo patterns of apoptosis during early retinal neurogenesis, and that exogenous insulin acts as survival factor (Diaz, B., Pimentel, B., De Pablo, F. and de la Rosa, E. J. (1999) Eur. J. Neurosci. 11, 1624–1632). Proinsulin mRNA was found to be expressed broadly in the early embryonic chick retina, and decreased later between days 6 and 8 of embryonic development, when there was increased expression of insulin-like growth factor I mRNA, absent or very scarce at earlier stages. Consequently, we studied whether proinsulin and/or insulin ((pro)insulin) action in prevention of cell death has physiological relevance during early neural development. In ovo treatment at day 2 of embryonic development with specific antibodies against (pro)insulin or the insulin receptor induced apoptosis in the neuroretina. The distribution of apoptotic cells two days after the blockade was similar to naturally occurring cell death, as visualized by TdT-mediated dUTP nick end labeling. The apoptosis induced by the insulin receptor blockade preferentially affected to the Islet1/2 positive cells, that is, the differentiated retinal ganglion cells. In parallel, the insulin survival effect on cultured retinas correlated with the activation of Akt to a greater extent than with the activation of MAP kinase. These results suggest that the physiological cell death occurring in early stages of retinal development is regulated by locally produced (pro)insulin through the activation of the Akt survival pathway.

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