Signaling mechanisms of axon guidance and early synaptogenesis

Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2014;16:19-48. doi: 10.1007/7854_2013_255.


The development of the vertebrate nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord, progresses in a step-wise fashion that involves the function of thousands of genes. The birth of new neurons (also known as neurogenesis) and their subsequent migration to appropriate locations within the developing brain mark the earliest stages of CNS development. Subsequently, these newborn neurons extend axons and dendrites to make stereotyped synaptic connections within the developing brain, which is a complex process involving cell intrinsic mechanisms that respond to specific extracellular signals. The extension and navigation of the axon to its appropriate target region in the brain and body is dependent upon many cell surface proteins that detect extracellular cues and transduce signals to the inside of the cell. In turn, intracellular signaling mechanisms orchestrate axon structural reorganization and appropriate turning toward or away from a guidance cue. Once the target region is reached, chemical synapses are formed between the axon and target cell, and again, this appears to involve cell surface proteins signaling to the inside of the neuron to stabilize and mature a synapse. Here, we describe some of the key convergent and, in some cases, divergent molecular pathways that regulate axon guidance and synaptogenesis in early brain development. Mutations in genes involved in early brain wiring and synapse formation and pruning increase the risk for developing autism, further highlighting the relevance of brain development factors in the pathophysiology of neurodevelopmental disorders.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / physiology*
  • Cytoskeleton / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neurogenesis / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*
  • Synapses / physiology*