Inhalation of mercury vapor (Hg0) inhibits binding of GTP to rat brain tubulin, thereby inhibiting tubulin polymerization into microtubules. A similar molecular lesion has also been observed in 80% of brains from patients with Alzheimer disease (AD) compared to age-matched controls. However the precise site and mode of action of Hg ions remain illusive. Therefore, the present study examined whether Hg ions could affect membrane dynamics of neurite growth cone morphology and behavior. Since tubulin is a highly conserved cytoskeletal protein in both vertebrates and invertebrates, we hypothesized that growth cones from animal species could be highly susceptible to Hg ions. To test this possibility, the identified, large Pedal A (PeA) neurons from the central ring ganglia of the snail Lymnoea stagnalis were cultured for 48 h in 2 ml brain conditioned medium (CM). Following neurite outgrowth, metal chloride solution (2 microl) of Hg, Al, Pb, Cd, or Mn (10(-7) M) was pressure applied directly onto individual growth cones. Time-lapse images with inverted microscopy were acquired prior to, during, and after the metal ion exposure. We demonstrate that Hg ions markedly disrupted membrane structure and linear growth rates of imaged neurites in 77% of all nerve growth cones. When growth cones were stained with antibodies specific for both tubulin and actin, it was the tubulin/microtubule structure that disintegrated following Hg exposure. Moreover, some denuded neurites were also observed to form neurofibrillary aggregates. In contrast, growth cone exposure to other metal ions did not effect growth cone morphology, nor was their motility rate compromised. To determine the growth suppressive effects of Hg ions on neuronal sprouting, cells were cultured either in the presence or absence of Hg ions. We found that in the presence of Hg ions, neuronal somata failed to sprout, whereas other metalic ions did not effect growth patterns of cultured PeA cells. We conclude that this visual evidence and previous biochemical data strongly implicate Hg as a potential etiological factor in neurodegeneration.