Background: The vertebrate peripheral nervous system contains sensory neurons that arise from ectodermal placodes. Placodal cells ingress to move inside the head to form sensory neurons of the cranial ganglia. To date, however, the process of placodal cell ingression and underlying cellular behavior are poorly understood as studies have relied upon static analyses on fixed tissues. Visualizing placodal cell behavior requires an ability to distinguish the surface ectoderm from the underlying mesenchyme. This necessitates high resolution imaging along the z-plane which is difficult to accomplish in whole embryos. To address this issue, we have developed an imaging system using cranial slices that allows direct visualization of placode formation.
Results: We demonstrate an effective imaging assay for capturing placode development at single cell resolution using chick embryonic tissue ex vivo. This provides the first time-lapse imaging of mitoses in the trigeminal placodal ectoderm, ingression, and intercellular contacts of placodal cells. Cell divisions with varied orientations were found in the placodal ectoderm all along the apical-basal axis. Placodal cells initially have short cytoplasmic processes during ingression as young neurons and mature over time to elaborate long axonal processes in the mesenchyme. Interestingly, the time-lapse imaging data reveal that these delaminating placodal neurons begin ingression early on from within the ectoderm, where they start to move and continue on to exit as individual or strings of neurons through common openings on the basal side of the epithelium. Furthermore, dynamic intercellular contacts are abundant among the delaminating placodal neurons, between these and the already delaminated cells, as well as among cells in the forming ganglion.
Conclusions: This new imaging assay provides a powerful method to analyze directly development of placode-derived sensory neurons and subsequent ganglia formation for the first time in amniotes. Viewing placode development in a head cross-section provides a vantage point from which it is possible to study comprehensive events in placode formation, from differentiation, cell ingression to ganglion assembly. Understanding how placodal neurons form may reveal a new mechanism of neurogenesis distinct from that in the central nervous system and provide new insight into how cells acquire motility from a stationary epithelial cell type.