Partial interruption of axonal transport due to microtubule breakage accounts for the formation of periodic varicosities after traumatic axonal injury

Exp Neurol. 2012 Jan;233(1):364-72. doi: 10.1016/j.expneurol.2011.10.030. Epub 2011 Nov 4.


Due to their viscoelastic nature, white matter axons are susceptible to damage by high strain rates produced during traumatic brain injury (TBI). Indeed, diffuse axonal injury (DAI) is one of the most common features of TBI, characterized by the hallmark pathological profiles of axonal bulbs at disconnected terminal ends of axons and periodic swellings along axons, known as "varicosities." Although transport interruption underlies axonal bulb formation, it is unclear how varicosities arise, with multiple sites accumulating transported materials along one axon. Recently, axonal microtubules have been found to physically break during dynamic stretch injury of cortical axons in vitro. Here, the same in vitro model was used in parallel with histopathological analyses of human brains acquired acutely following TBI to examine the potential role of mechanical microtubule damage in varicosity formation post-trauma. Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) following in vitro stretch injury revealed periodic breaks of individual microtubules along axons that regionally corresponded with undulations in axon morphology. However, typically less than a third of microtubules were broken in any region of an axon. Within hours, these sites of microtubule breaks evolved into periodic swellings. This suggests axonal transport may be halted along one broken microtubule, yet can proceed through the same region via other intact microtubules. Similar axonal undulations and varicosities were observed following TBI in humans, suggesting primary microtubule failure may also be a feature of DAI. These data indicate a novel mechanism of mechanical microtubule damage leading to partial transport interruption and varicosity formation in traumatic axonal injury.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amyloid beta-Protein Precursor / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Axonal Transport / physiology*
  • Axons / physiology*
  • Axons / ultrastructure
  • Brain Injuries / metabolism
  • Brain Injuries / pathology
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Corpus Callosum / pathology
  • Corpus Callosum / ultrastructure
  • Culture Techniques / instrumentation
  • Culture Techniques / methods
  • Diffuse Axonal Injury / metabolism
  • Diffuse Axonal Injury / pathology*
  • Diffuse Axonal Injury / physiopathology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Embryo, Mammalian
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission / methods
  • Microtubules / metabolism
  • Microtubules / pathology*
  • Neurons / pathology*
  • Neurons / ultrastructure
  • Rats
  • Tubulin / metabolism
  • tau Proteins / metabolism


  • Amyloid beta-Protein Precursor
  • Tubulin
  • tau Proteins