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About 45% of the serotonergic raphe neurons are reported to express nerve growth factor (NGF) receptors. We therefore investigated whether selective serotonergic lesions of the median or dorsal raphe nuclei are associated with changes in NGF protein levels of the brain and whether the loss of serotonergic function alters the vulnerability of cholinergic septohippocampal neurons. In adult rats the hippocampal NGF content changed in a biphasic way after lesion of the median raphe nucleus by 5,7-dihydroxytryptamine (5,7-DHT), with a significant increase after 2-3 weeks of up to 35%, followed by a significant reduction of 22% below control levels after 7 weeks, and a return to control levels within the following 4 weeks. By contrast, the decrease in hippocampal serotonin and 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid remained throughout the observation period of 11 weeks, being still reduced to 15 and 30% of the control levels, respectively. In the frontal cortex the partial loss of the serotonergic innervation projecting from the median raphe was associated 5 weeks after 5,7-DHT injection with an increase in NGF protein of 39.7+/-9.6% (P<0.05), which remained elevated up to 11 weeks. At 9 weeks after 5,7-DHT, the lesion of the septohippocampal cholinergic neurons induced by the cholinotoxin ethylcholine aziridinium (AF64A) was exaggerated (P<0.05) as compared to AF64A-treated rats with intact serotonergic innervation. The present data indicate that a serotonergic lesion of the median raphe nucleus results in biphasic changes of NGF protein content and in a delayed increase in the vulnerability of septohippocampal cholinergic neurons.