Evidence That Spinal Interneurons Undergo Programmed Cell Death Postnatally in the Rat



Programmed cell death has been demonstrated in several specific neuronal populations as a mechanism for modulating the population size following differentiation, but its applicability to all neuronal types is unclear. Evidence for programmed cell death in some populations such as the numerous spinal interneurons has been lacking. We have studied the incidence of apoptosis in the rat spinal cord with three different methods and found a previously undocumented wave of apoptosis occurring in spinal grey matter shortly after birth. The apoptotic morphology was confirmed ultrastructurally. Dying cells were identified as neurons by immunocytochemical labelling for neuronal markers and had an anatomical distribution which indicated that most of the apoptotic cells were interneurons not motoneurons. This wave of apoptosis has the characteristics of a discrete developmental process and occurs later than that of either ventral horn motoneurons or dorsal root ganglion cells, to which most spinal interneurons are connected. These findings indicate that interneurons do undergo programmed cell death, and we suggest that this occurs in response to the earlier reduction in size of their main synaptic targets.