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To investigate the hypotheses that Kyoto spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR) possess more sympathetic neurons than do normotensive Wistar-Kyoto (WKY) animals due to reduced perinatal cell death and that this is due to increased availability of the sympathetic survival neurotrophin, nerve growth factor.Total cell counts of neuron numbers were performed in neonatal and adult SHR and WKY rat superior cervical ganglia and correlated with counts of apoptotic cells. The values for sympathetic neuron numbers were compared with those for a spinal sensory ganglion. Immunocytochemistry was used to obtain more information about the phenotypes of neurons counted.Adult SHR sympathetic ganglia contained about 25% more sympathetic neurons than did those of WKY animals. Similar elevation of numbers was found both for neurons containing and for those devoid of neuropeptide Y. In neonatal animals, in contrast, there was no strain difference in sympathetic cell numbers but the number of apoptotic cells was reduced in SHR. Spinal sensory neuron numbers in adult SHR were elevated to a similar extent as were sympathetic neurons, but biochemical and morphometric data suggested that this change does not involve cells that are sensitive to nerve growth factor.Although our results support the view that there is reduced developmental cell death both in sympathetic and in sensory systems, they also suggest that this is unlikely to be due to a simple excess of nerve growth factor during development.