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Neurotrophic factors rescue basal forebrain cholinergic neurons and improve performance on a spatial learning test.

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This study investigated whether animals sustaining experimental damage to the basal forebrain cholinergic system would benefit from treatment with exogenous neurotrophic factors. Specifically, we set out to determine whether neurotrophic factors would rescue damaged cholinergic neurons and improve behavioral performance on a spatial learning and memory task. Adult rats received bilateral injections of either saline (controls) or 192 IgG-saporin to damage basal forebrain cholinergic neurons (BFCNs). Two weeks later, animals received implants of an Alzet mini-pump connected to cannulae implanted bilaterally in the lateral ventricles. Animals received infusions of nerve growth factor (NGF), neurotrophin 3 (NT3), a combination of NGF and NT3, or a saline control over a 4-week period. Compared to saline-treated controls, animals sustaining saporin-induced damage to BFCNs took significantly more trials to learn a delayed match to position task and also performed more poorly on subsequent tests, with increasing delays between test runs. In contrast, animals infused with neurotrophins after saporin treatment performed significantly better than animals receiving saline infusions; no differences were detected for performance scores among animals infused with NGF, NT3, or a combination of NGF and NT3. Studies of ChAT immunnocytochemical labeling of BFCNs revealed a reduction in the numbers of ChAT-positive neurons in septum, nucleus of diagonal band, and nucleus basalis in animals treated with saporin followed by saline infusions, whereas animals treated with infusions of NGF, NT3 or a combination of NGF and NT3 showed only modest reductions in ChAT-positive neurons. Together, these data support the notion that administration of neurotrophic factors can rescue basal forebrain cholinergic neurons and improve learning and memory performance in rats.

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