The systemic administration of capsaicin is known to cause a massive loss of sensory primary neurons in newborn rats. Here we examined the trigeminal ganglion neurons immunohistochemically for the possible induction of activated forms of caspases-9 and -3 following a subcutaneous injection of capsaicin in newborn rats. The DNA fragmentation signal was labeled by a TUNEL method. TUNEL-positive neurons were rare (<0.5%) at 24 h after injection of the vehicle without capsaicin. After the capsaicin injection, TUNEL-positive neurons began to increase by 12 h, reached a peak at 24 h (11.4%), and returned to the control level by 120 h. Vehicle control levels of caspase-9-immunoreactive (ir) and caspase-3-ir neurons were low (<0.5%). Neonatal capsaicin administration induced caspase-9-immunoreactivity (ir) and -3-ir. The temporal distributions of caspase-9-ir and caspase-3-ir neurons were similar to those of TUNEL-positive neurons with peak expressions at 24 h of 13.2 and 11.1%, respectively. A double-stain analysis at 24 h post-injection indicated 72% of TUNEL-positive neurons were caspase-9-ir, and 70% caspase-3-ir. Conversely, 78 and 68% of caspase-9-ir and caspase-3-ir neurons, respectively, were TUNEL-positive. Comparison of two adjacent sections immunostained for the two different antigens revealed the co-expression of the two caspases. These results suggest that neonatal capsaicin triggers the caspase cascade and, thereby, induces trigeminal primary neuronal apoptosis.
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