An extruding wire knife was used to give adult male CFHB rats a minimally traumatic unilateral mechanical lesion of the medial forebrain bundle. In addition, some rats received bilateral intrastriatal injections of one of three fluorescent retrograde tracers either eight days before or eight days after the lesion. Injections made after the lesion revealed that about half of the animals had complete lesions of the nigrostriatal tract, while the other half were incompletely lesioned, the mean proportion of non-axotomized neurons being 23%. Over the 10 weeks following the lesions, the number of tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive cells in the lesioned substantia nigra fell linearly, reaching a mean of 29% of that of the control substantia nigra. In the animals which were completely lesioned, neuronal survival at 10 weeks varied between 6 and 12%. That the disappearance of tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive neurons was due to cell death rather than the loss of tyrosine hydroxylase itself was confirmed by labelling the cells with Fluoro Gold before axotomy; the tracer was seen in surviving neurons, microglia and in a few involuted neurons which continued to be tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive. This percentage of neurons surviving axotomy corresponds to the proportion of substantia nigra neurons which project to the contralateral striatum, and these neurons were in the region of the substantia nigra from which the contralateral projection originated.It is concluded that following mechanical transection of the nigrostriatal tract, all truly axotomized substantia nigra neurons die over a period of about 10 weeks.
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