Axotomy-induced alterations in the electrophysiological characteristics of neurons

Prog Neurobiol. 1990;35(1):1-51. doi: 10.1016/0301-0082(90)90039-j.


The electrophysiological alterations provoked by axotomy have now been studied for almost half a century, in a number of different cell types. Consequently, it is now possible to detail some common mechanisms underlying these changes and to sort out certain trends in the data. The major phenomena reviewed in this section and some possible future directions are summarized below. (1) It is now possible to advance a unified hypothesis for the effects of axotomy on the conduction velocity of myelinated fibers. The key is that axon diameter, which is directly correlated with conduction velocity, is regulated, at least in part, by neurofilament protein gene expression and transport into the axon. Thus, the largest myelinated axons, with the fastest conduction velocities, have the highest neurofilament contents, and in turn, experience greater or faster declines in neurofilament content, axon caliber, and conduction speed following nerve injury. This regulation of neurofilament gene expression also appears to be target- and/or accessory cell-dependent. In fact, Hoffman and colleagues (1988) have hypothesized that neuron interactions with specific targets (via as yet unknown target-induced signals) may either specify or permit specification of the level of neurofilament gene expression in neurons. Imposed on this primary size determinant is an influence of activity, which also underlies the differential atrophy and decrement in conduction velocity exhibited by motor and sensory fibers of comparable diameters in the same lesioned nerve. Unmyelinated axons, whose structures are not dominated by neurofilament content and metabolism, react very differently to axotomy. The structural and metabolic basis of their reaction is not known. (2) Passive membrane properties, in particular neuronal input resistance, remain relatively stable in the majority of neurons after axotomy. The major exceptions, vertebrate spinal motoneurons, lamprey dorsal interneurons, and mammalian vagal motoneurons, all show an increase in input resistance after axotomy. This change in input resistance appears to be correlated with structural or geometric simplification of dendritic trees and real or apparent changes in specific membrane resistance in one case and with a reduction in cell body size in the other two; however, changes in specific membrane resistance cannot be excluded even in the latter two cases. In the spinal motoneurons, input resistance changes may be more pronounced in those neurons with the most extensive or complex dendritic geometries (i.e. F-type motoneurons). More combined electrophysiological (ideally under voltage or patch clamp conditions) and morphological investigations of single neurons need be done to resolve these questions.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / physiology*
  • Electrophysiology
  • Humans
  • Neurons / physiology*