Microtubules in health and degenerative disease of the nervous system

Brain Res Bull. 2016 Sep;126(Pt 3):217-225. doi: 10.1016/j.brainresbull.2016.06.016. Epub 2016 Jun 27.


Microtubules are essential for the development and maintenance of axons and dendrites throughout the life of the neuron, and are vulnerable to degradation and disorganization in a variety of neurodegenerative diseases. Microtubules, polymers of tubulin heterodimers, are intrinsically polar structures with a plus end favored for assembly and disassembly and a minus end less favored for these dynamics. In the axon, microtubules are nearly uniformly oriented with plus ends out, whereas in dendrites, microtubules have mixed orientations. Microtubules in developing neurons typically have a stable domain toward the minus end and a labile domain toward the plus end. This domain structure becomes more complex during neuronal maturation when especially stable patches of polyaminated tubulin become more prominent within the microtubule. Microtubules are the substrates for molecular motor proteins that transport cargoes toward the plus or minus end of the microtubule, with motor-driven forces also responsible for organizing microtubules into their distinctive polarity patterns in axons and dendrites. A vast array of microtubule-regulatory proteins impart direct and indirect changes upon the microtubule arrays of the neuron, and these include microtubule-severing proteins as well as proteins responsible for the stability properties of the microtubules. During neurodegenerative diseases, microtubule mass is commonly diminished, and the potential exists for corruption of the microtubule polarity patterns and microtubule-mediated transport. These ill effects may be a primary causative factor in the disease or may be secondary effects, but regardless, therapeutics capable of correcting these microtubule abnormalities have great potential to improve the status of the degenerating nervous system.

Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; Axon; Axonal transport; CAMSAP; Dendrite; Dynein; Fidgetin; Katanin; Kinesin; Microtubule; Microtubule stability; Microtubule-associated proteins; Molecular motor proteins; Neurodegeneration; Neuron; Spastin; Tau; Tauopathy; Tubulin; Tubulin code.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Microtubules / metabolism*
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / metabolism*
  • Neurons / metabolism*