Sensory neurons in neonatal rat lumbar dorsal root ganglia die after sciatic nerve axotomy, and previous studies have estimated the total cell loss to be 40–95%. We have used the terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated deoxyuridine triphosphate nick end labelling (TUNEL) technique, combined with immunohistochemistry, to investigate the contribution of apoptosis to the cell loss that occurs after unilaterally transecting the sciatic nerve of new-born rats.
TUNEL-positive cells were detected 1 day post-lesion, and their number peaked 3 days after the injury. Combining TUNEL labelling with immunohistochemistry, for neuron-specific neurofilament 150 kDa, or glial-specific S-100β, enabled us to identify dying neurons and dying glia. One day after axotomy, most of the TUNEL-positive cells (58%) were neurons, whereas 3 days post-injury, only a small number of dying cells (6%) were neuronal. This lower incidence was due to a decrease in neuronal death and an increase in glial death. The glia in the dorsal root ganglia therefore die subsequent to the neurons. The apoptotic nature of the cell death was confirmed by electron microscopy, with fine structural features of apoptotic cell death, e.g. chromatin compaction and membrane blebbing, being observed in both glia and neurons.
Our results confirm that extensive apoptosis occurs in the neonatal lumbar dorsal root ganglia after sciatic nerve section, and show that neurons and glial cells die with different time-courses. The results suggest a neuron-glia trophic interdependence in the dorsal root ganglia.