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Background: The survival and differentiation of motoneurons during embryonic development, and the maintenance of their function in the postnatal phase, are regulated by a great variety of neurotrophic molecules which mediate their effects through different receptor systems. The multifactorial support of motoneurons represents a system of high security, because the inactivation of individual ligands has either no detectable, or relatively small, atrophic or degenerative effect on motoneurons. Results: Leukaemia inhibitory factor (LIF) has been demonstrated to support motoneuron survival in vitro and in vivo under different experimental conditions. However, when LIF was inactivated by gene targeting, there were no apparent changes in the number and structure of motoneurons and no impairment of their function. The slowly appearing, relatively mild degenerating effects in motoneurons that resulted from ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) gene targeting were substantially potentiated by simultaneous inactivation of the LIF gene, however. Thus, in mice deficient in LIF and CNTF, the degenerative changes in motoneurons were more extensive and appeared earlier. These changes were also functionally reflected by a marked reduction in grip strength. Conclusions: Degenerative disorders of the nervous system, in particular those of motoneurons, may be based on multifactorial inherited and/or acquired defects which individually do not result in degenerative disorders, but which become apparent when additional (cryptic) inherited disturbances or sub-threshold concentrations of noxious factors come into play. Accordingly, the inherited inactivation of the CNTF gene in a high proportion of the Japanese population may represent a predisposing factor for degenerative disorders of motoneurons.