Neurofilaments are flexible polymers that often fold and unfold, but they move in a fully extended configuration

Cytoskeleton (Hoboken). 2012 Jul;69(7):535-44. doi: 10.1002/cm.21039. Epub 2012 Jun 12.


Time-lapse imaging of neurofilaments in axons of cultured nerve cells has demonstrated that these cytoskeletal polymers move along microtubule tracks in both anterograde and retrograde directions, powered by microtubule motors. The filaments exhibit short bouts of rapid intermittent movement interrupted by prolonged pauses, and the average velocity is slow because they spend most of their time pausing. Here, we show that axonal neurofilaments are also very flexible and frequently exhibit complex and dynamic folding and unfolding behaviors while they are pausing. Remarkably, however, when the filaments move in a sustained manner, we find that they always adopt an unfolded, that is, fully extended configuration, and this applies to movement in both anterograde and retrograde directions. Given the flexibility of neurofilament polymers and the apparent ease with which they can fold back on themselves, the fact that they move in a fully extended configuration suggests that moving neurofilaments may be pulled from their leading end. Thus, we speculate that motors may bind to the leading ends of neurofilaments polymers during both anterograde and retrograde motion.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / metabolism*
  • Biopolymers / chemistry
  • Biopolymers / metabolism
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Mice
  • Neurofilament Proteins / chemistry*
  • Neurofilament Proteins / metabolism*
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Protein Folding


  • Biopolymers
  • Neurofilament Proteins