In this study we used immunocytochemistry to investigate the distribution of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and its receptor tyrosine kinase (trkB) in retina and optic tectum of the frog Rana pipiens during regeneration after axotomy. We also measured changes in BDNF mRNA in retina and tectum. Retrograde labeling was used to identify retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) prior to quantification of the BDNF immunoreactivity. In control animals, BDNF was found in the majority of RGCs and displaced amacrine cells and in some cells in the inner nuclear layer (INL). After axotomy, BDNF immunoreactivity was reduced in RGCs but increased in the INL. BDNF mRNA levels in the retina remained high before and after axotomy. Three months after axotomy, after reconnection to the target, the staining intensity of many of the surviving RGCs had partially recovered. In the control tectum, BDNF staining was present in ependymoglial cells and in neurons throughout layers 4, 6, 8, and 9. After axotomy, BDNF staining in tectal neurons became more intense, even though mRNA synthesis was transiently down-regulated. In control retinas, trkB receptor immunostaining was present in most RGCs; no significant changes were observed after axotomy. In control tectum, trkB was detected only in ependymoglial cells. After axotomy, many neuronal cell bodies were transiently labeled. Our data are consistent with the hypothesis that a considerable fraction of the BDNF normally present in RGCs is acquired from their targets in the tectum. However, there are also intraretinal sources of BDNF that could contribute to the survival of RGCs.
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