To investigate the reliability of different methods of quantifying retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) in rat retinal sections and wholemounts from eyes with either intact optic nerves or those axotomised after optic nerve crush (ONC). Adult rats received a unilateral ONC and after 21 days the numbers of Brn3a+ , bIII-tubulin+ and Islet-1+ RGCs were quantified in either retinal radial sections or wholemounts in which FluoroGold (FG) was injected 48 h before harvesting. Phenotypic antibody markers were used to distinguish RGCs from astrocytes, macrophages/microglia and amacrine cells. In wholemounted retinae, counts of FG+ and Brn3a+ RGCs were of similar magnitude in eyes with intact optic nerves and were similarly reduced after ONC. Larger differences in RGC number were detected between intact and ONC groups when images were taken closer to the optic nerve head. In radial sections, Brn3a did not stain astrocytes, macrophages/microglia or amacrine cells, whereas βIII-tubulin and Islet-1 did localize to amacrine cells as well as RGCs. The numbers of βIII-tubulin+ RGCs was greater than Brn3a+ RGCs, both in retinae from eyes with intact optic nerves and eyes 21 days after ONC. Islet-1 staining also overestimated the number of RGCs compared to Brn3a, but only after ONC. Estimates of RGC loss were similar in Brn3astained radial retinal sections compared to both Brn3a-stained wholemounts and retinal wholemounts in which RGCs were backfilled with FG, with sections having the added advantage of reducing experimental animal usage.
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