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The GDNF family: Signalling, biological functions and therapeutic value

Key Points

  • Four different glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF)-family ligand (GFL)– receptor (GFRα) binding pairs exist, and they all signal through the transmembrane RET receptor tyrosine kinase.

  • Recruitment of RET to lipid rafts, induced by GFL binding to glycolipid-anchored GFRα receptors, is necessary for efficient downstream signalling. RET stimulation by soluble or matrix-bound GFL–GFRα complex activates distinct signalling pathways outside the rafts, and leads to sustained signalling inside the rafts.

  • Regulation of GFL and soluble GFRα receptor production, their interactions with the extracellular matrix, as well as internalization and degradation of the GFL–GFRα–RET receptor complex, are poorly understood.

  • GDNF acts in synergy with other growth factors, including transforming growth factor-β, but the mechanisms are unclear. Nerve growth factor (NGF) can activate RET by its tyrosine kinase receptor TrkA through an unknown intracellular pathway, independently of GFLs and GFRα receptors. GDNF can activate Src-family kinases through GFRα1 and an unknown transmembrane linker protein in a RET-independent manner.

  • GFLs might regulate the expression of their cognate co-receptors. Regulation of neurotransmitter release by GDNF implies a role in synaptic plasticity.

  • Sympathetic precursors require artemin, which is produced locally or by intermediate target cells, primarily for migration, but also for proliferation and early differentiation. Similarly, parasympathetic and enteric precursors require GDNF.

  • During target innervation, sympathetic neurons become dependent on NGF rather than artemin for their survival. By contrast, parasympathetic neurons switch their requirements from GDNF to target-derived neurturin for terminal innervation and the maintenance of cell size.

  • In somatic sensory neurons, GFLs regulate soma size, target innervation and nociception, but are not required for survival in vivo.

  • A subpopulation of motor neurons requires GDNF, which is produced by Schwann cells, to avoid programmed cell death. GDNF- but not brain-derived neurotrophic factor-mediated protection of injured motor neurons requires inhibitor of apoptosis proteins. So, trophic signalling differs between neurotrophins and GFLs.

  • Apart from promoting neuronal maintenance and regeneration, GFL-like drugs might be useful in the treatment of disorders such as neuropathic pain and addiction.


Members of the nerve growth factor (NGF) and glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) families — comprising neurotrophins and GDNF-family ligands (GFLs), respectively — are crucial for the development and maintenance of distinct sets of central and peripheral neurons. Knockout studies in the mouse have revealed that members of these two families might collaborate or act sequentially in a given neuron. Although neurotrophins and GFLs activate common intracellular signalling pathways through their receptor tyrosine kinases, several clear differences exist between these families of trophic factors.

Figure 1: GDNF-family ligands and receptor interactions.
Figure 2: Distinct GDNF-family ligand signalling inside and outside rafts.
Figure 3: Model of RET-independent GDNF–GFRα1 signalling.
Figure 4: Differences in trophic factor dependence between sympathetic and parasympathetic neurons.
Figure 5: In vivo functions of GDNF-family ligands in somatic sensory and motor neurons.


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We thank U. Arumäe, M. Paveliev, J. Rossi and P. Runeberg-Roos for critical reading of the manuscript. Our work is supported by the Academy of Finland, TEKES, Biocentrum Helsinki and the Sigrid Jusélius Foundation. Owing to space limitations, we have cited original references only from the last four years; we apologize for the omission of earlier papers.

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A post-translational modification, the function of which is to attach proteins to the exoplasmic leaflet of membranes, possibly to specific domains therein. The anchor is made of one molecule of phosphatidylinositol to which a carbohydrate chain is linked through the C-6 hydroxyl of the inositol, and is attached to the protein through an ethanolamine phosphate moiety.


A structure that contains the cell bodies of the sensory neurons of the glossopharyngeal nerve, which innervate the tongue, pharynx, middle ear and carotid body.


Sheet-like extensions at the edge of cells that contain a crosslinked F-actin meshwork.


An immediate early gene that is rapidly turned on when many types of neuron increase their activity. It can therefore be used to identify responsive neurons.


A molecule with potent vasoconstrictor activity. It is expressed by vascular cells, as well as in brain, kidney and lung.


A chemoreceptor organ that is located above the bifurcation of the common carotid artery. It monitors changes in blood O2 and CO2 content, and pH, thus helping to control respiratory activity.


An in vitro preparation that is used to study the functional properties of sensory neurons that innervate the skin. Single sensory afferents are isolated by recording from axons in microdissected filaments of a cutaneous nerve, and are classified on the basis of their conduction velocity, mechanical threshold and adaptation properties.


Administered into the outer sheath of the spinal cord.


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Airaksinen, M., Saarma, M. The GDNF family: Signalling, biological functions and therapeutic value. Nat Rev Neurosci 3, 383–394 (2002).

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