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Keywords:

  • nerve growth factor (NGF);
  • nociceptors;
  • intermediate filaments;
  • neurotrophins;
  • substantsia gelatinosa

Abstract

Investigations into the biological actions of nerve growth factor (NGF) have shown that dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons subserving nociception require NGF for survival and maintenance of phenotype. This discovery suggests that the signaling NGF receptor, TrkA, can be used as a marker for nociceptive neurons. In this study, we have used antibodies to TrkA, in conjunction with cell biological markers that show a restricted distribution in the DRG, to further characterize subsets of DRG neurons that are dependent upon NGF. Staining for TrkA labeled small and medium-sized neurons that composed 47% of all neurons in thoracic ganglia. Double-labeling with antibodies to the high molecular weight neurofilament protein (NFH), a marker for neurons with myelinated axons, demonstrated that TrkA staining is found in only a small subset of myelinated neurons. Surprisingly, many DRG neurons were not labeled by either TrkA or NFH. These neurons had small soma areas, contained the intermediate filament protein peripherin, and were labeled by the lectin BSI, identifying them as neurons likely to have unmyelinated axons. In addition, small TrkA–negative neurons were extensively labeled by antibodies to the intermediate filament protein γ-internexin, the delta isoform of protein kinase C, and by the BSI isolectin BSI-B4. In order to assess the potential functions of TrkA–negative small neurons, we examined their projections to the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. TrkA–immunoreactivity in the spinal cord was restricted to lamina I and the outer region of lamina II (II0), similar to staining for calcitonin gene-related peptide. In contrast, the central projections of TrkA–negative neurons, as visualized by BSI-B4 staining, were particularly dense in lamina IIi. Our results suggest that TrkA-expressing and non-TrkA-expressing small neurons compose functionally distinct populations of DRG neurons. © 1995 Wiley-Liss, Inc.