During development, growth cones direct growing axons into appropriate targets. However, in some cortical pathways target innervation occurs through the development of collateral branches that extend interstitially from the axon shaft. How do such branches form? Direct observations of living cortical brain slices revealed that growth cones of callosal axons pause for many hours beneath their cortical targets prior to the development of interstitial branches. High resolution imaging of dissociated living cortical neurons for many hours revealed that the growth cone demarcates sites of future axon branching by lengthy pausing behaviors and enlargement of the growth cone. After a new growth cone forms and resumes forward advance, filopodial and lamellipodial remnants of the large paused growth cone are left behind on the axon shaft from which interstitial branches later emerge. To investigate how the cytoskeleton reorganizes at axon branch points, we fluorescently labeled microtubules in living cortical neurons and imaged the behaviors of microtubules during new growth from the axon shaft and the growth cone. In both regions microtubules reorganize into a more plastic form by splaying apart and fragmenting. These shorter microtubules then invade newly developing branches with anterograde and retrograde movements. Although axon branching of dissociated cortical neurons occurs in the absence of targets, application of a target-derived growth factor, FGF-2, greatly enhances branching. Taken together, these results demonstrate that growth cone pausing is closely related to axon branching and suggest that common mechanisms underlie directed axon growth from the terminal growth cone and the axon shaft.
Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.