The rat dentate gyrus is a unique brain structure in that most of its neurons are born postnatally. Cell death is known to be an important phenomenon in brain development and yet it is at present unknown whether the dentate gyrus undergoes a period of naturally occurring cell death. In order to determine whether or not cell death plays a role in the development of the dentate gyrus, we examined the density of degenerating cells and healthy cells in the suprapyramidal and infrapyramidal granule cell blades and the hilus during the postnatal period. Light microscopic examination of Nissl‐stained brain tissue revealed substantial numbers of pyknotic cells throughout the dentate gyrus during the first postnatal week. Quantitative analysis of the suprapyramidal blade showed a peak in the density of pyknotic cells at the end of the first postnatal week. This peak in the density of degenerating cells coincided with a significant decrease in the density of healthy cells in this region. No rostrocaudal gradient in cell death was observed for the suprapyramidal blade. However, cell death in the suprapyramidal blade proceeded along superficial to deep as well as lateral to medial gradients. Within the infrapyramidal blade/hilus, cell death occurred at different times depending on the rostrocaudal level of the dentate gyrus. Peak density of pyknotic cells was observed the day after birth in the rostral part of the infrapyramidal blade/hilus while pyknosis did not reach a peak in the middle and temporal thirds of this region until the end of the first postnatal week. Cell death in the infrapyramidal blade proceeded in a superficial to deep and lateral to medial direction. These results indicate that the dentate gyrus undergoes a significant period of naturally occurring cell death during the early postnatal period.
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