Ionizing radiation is commonly used in the treatment of brain tumors but can cause significant damage to surrounding normal brain. The pathogenesis of this damage is uncertain, and understanding the response of potential target cell populations may provide information useful for developing strategies to optimize therapeutic irradiation. In the mammalian forebrain, the subependyma is a mitotically active area that is a source of oligodendrocytes and astrocytes, and it has been hypothesized that depletion of cells from this region could play a role in radiation-induced white matter injury. Using a distinct morphological pattern of nuclear fragmentation and an immunohistochemical method to specifically label the 3′-hydroxyl termini of DNA strand breaks (terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP-biotin nick end labeling), we quantified apoptosis in the subependyma in the young adult rat brain after single and fractionated doses of X-rays. Significant increases in apoptotic index (percentage of cells showing apoptosis) were detected 3 h after irradiation, and the peak apoptotic index was detected at 6 h. Six h after irradiation, the dose response for apoptosis was characterized by a steep increase in apoptotic index between 0.5 and 2.0 Gy and a plateau from 2–30 Gy. The fraction of cells susceptible to apoptosis was estimated to be about 40%, and treatment of rats with cycloheximide inhibited apoptosis. When daily 1.5-Gy fractions of X-rays were administered, the first three fractions were equally effective at decreasing the cell population via apoptosis. There was no additional apoptosis or decrease in cellularity in spite of one to four additional doses of X-rays. Those data suggested some input of cells into the subependymal population during fractionated treatment, and subsequent studies showed that there was a significant rise in 5-bromo-2′ deoxyuridine labeling index 2–3 days after irradiation, indicating increased cellular proliferation. The proliferative response after depletion of cells via apoptosis may represent the recruitment of a relatively quiescent stem cell population. It is possible that the radiation response of subependymal stem cells and not the apoptotic-sensitive population per se are critical elements in the response of the brain to radiation injury.


This work was supported by NIH Grant CA 13525.

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