Pathfinding by growing axons in the developing nervous system may be guided by gradients of extracellular guidance factors. Analogous to the process of chemotaxis in microorganisms, we found that axonal growth cones of cultured Xenopus spinal neurons exhibit adaptation during chemotactic migration, undergoing consecutive phases of desensitization and resensitization in the presence of increasing basal concentrations of the guidance factor netrin-1 or brain-derived neurotrophic factor. The desensitization is specific to the guidance factor and is accompanied by a reduction of Ca2+ signalling, whereas resensitization requires activation of mitogen-associated protein kinase and local protein synthesis. Such adaptive behaviour allows the growth cone to re-adjust its sensitivity over a wide range of concentrations of the guidance factor, an essential feature for long-range chemotaxis.
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