Mechanisms of polarized membrane trafficking in neurons -- focusing in on endosomes

Mol Cell Neurosci. 2011 Dec;48(4):278-87. doi: 10.1016/j.mcn.2011.06.013. Epub 2011 Jul 2.


Neurons are polarized cells that have a complex and unique morphology: long processes (axons and dendrites) extending far from the cell body. In addition, the somatodendritic and axonal domains are further divided into specific subdomains, such as synapses (pre- and postsynaptic specializations), proximal and distal dendrites, axon initial segments, nodes of Ranvier, and axon growth cones. The striking asymmetry and complexity of neuronal cells are necessary for their function in receiving, processing and transferring electrical signals, with each domain playing a precise function in these processes. In order to establish and maintain distinct neuronal domains, mechanisms must exist for protein delivery to specific neuronal compartments, such that each compartment has the correct functional molecular composition. How polarized membrane domains are established and maintained is a long-standing question. Transmembrane proteins, such as receptors and adhesion molecules, can be transported to their proper membrane domains by several pathways. The biosynthetic secretory system delivers newly synthesized transmembrane proteins from the ER via the Golgi and trans-Golgi-network (TGN) to the plasma membrane. In addition, the endosomal system is critically involved in many instances in ensuring proper (re)targeting of membrane components because it can internalize and degrade mislocalized proteins, or recycle proteins from one domain to another. The endosomal system is thus crucial for establishing and maintaining neuronal polarity. In this review, we focus mainly on the intracellular compartments that serve as sorting stations for polarized transport, with particular emphasis on the emerging roles of endosomes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Polarity / physiology*
  • Endosomes / metabolism*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neurons / cytology*
  • Protein Transport / physiology