Substantial evidence now exists indicating that the neurotrophins, a family of growth factors required for the survival, development, and differentiation of various neuronal populations of the nervous system, are also important for the development of nonneuronal tissues. Such a function was first suggested by studies showing the presence of high-affinity neurotrophin receptors in a variety of nonneuronal tissues including those of the cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, and reproductive systems. Within the latter, the gonads appear to be a preferential site of neurotrophin action as suggested by the presence in the mammalian ovary of at least four of the five known neurotrophins and all of the neurotrophin receptors thus far identified. While the various functions that the neurotrophins may have in the ovary are still being elucidated, it is now clear that in addition to recruiting the ovarian innervation, they play a direct role in the regulation of two different maturational periods that are critical for the acquisition of female reproductive function: early follicular development and ovulation. Neurotrophins facilitate the development of newly formed follicles by promoting the initial differentiation and the subsequent growth of primordial follicles. These actions appear to be related to the ability of neurotrophins to sustain the proliferation of both mesenchymal and granulosa cells, and to induce the synthesis of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) receptors. At the time of the first ovulation, neurotrophins contribute to the ovulatory cascade by increasing prostaglandin E(2) release, reducing gap junction communication, and inducing cell proliferation within the thecal compartment of preovulatory follicles.
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