During their early postmitotic life, a proportion of the nascent retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) are induced to die as a result of the interaction of nerve growth factor (NGF) with the neurotrophin receptor p75. To analyse the mechanisms by which NGF promotes apoptosis, an in vitro culture system consisting of dissociated E5 retinal cells was established. In this system, NGF-induced apoptosis was only observed in the presence of insulin and neurotrophin-3, conditions that favour the birth of RGCs and other neurones expressing the glycoprotein G4. The pro-apoptotic effect of NGF on the G4-positive neurones was evident after 10 hours in vitro and was preceded by a significant upregulation of cyclin B2, but not cyclin D1, and the presence of mitotic nuclei in these cells. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor prevented both the increase of cyclin B2 expression in the G4-positive neurones and the NGF-induced cell death. Finally, pharmacologically blocking cell-cycle progression using the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor roscovitine prevented NGF-induced cell death in a dose-dependent manner. These results strongly suggest that the apoptotic signalling initiated by NGF requires a driving stimulus manifested by the neuronal birth and is preceded by the unscheduled re-entry of postmitotic neurones into the cell cycle.

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