Naturally occurring cell death (NOCD) is a prominent feature of the developing nervous system. During this process, neurons express bcl-2, a major regulator of cell death whose expression may determine whether a neuron dies or survives. To gain insight into the possible role of bcl-2 during NOCD in vivo, we generated lines of transgenic mice in which neurons overexpress the human BCL-2 protein under the control of the neuron-specific enolase (NSE) or phosphoglycerate kinase (PGK) promoters. BCL-2 overexpression reduced neuronal loss during the NOCD period, which led to hypertrophy of the nervous system. For instance, the facial nucleus and the ganglion cell layer of the retina had, respectively, 40% and 50% more neurons than normal. Consistent with this finding, more axons than normal were found in the facial and optic nerves. We also tested whether neurons overexpressing BCL-2 were more resistant to permanent ischemia induced by middle cerebral artery occlusion; in transgenic mice, the volume of the brain infarction was reduced by 50% as compared with wild-type mice. These animals represent an invaluable tool for studying the effects of increased neuronal numbers on brain function as well as the mechanisms that control the survival of neurons during development and adulthood.
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