Myelinated axons are constricted at nodes of Ranvier. These constrictions are important physiologically because they increase the speed of saltatory nerve conduction, but they also represent potential bottlenecks for the movement of axonally transported cargoes. One type of cargo are neurofilaments, which are abundant space-filling cytoskeletal polymers that function to increase axon caliber. Neurofilaments move bidirectionally along axons, alternating between rapid movements and prolonged pauses. Strikingly, axon constriction at nodes is accompanied by a reduction in neurofilament number that can be as much as 10-fold in the largest axons. To investigate how neurofilaments navigate these constrictions, we developed a transgenic mouse strain that expresses a photoactivatable fluorescent neurofilament protein in neurons. We used the pulse-escape fluorescence photoactivation technique to analyze neurofilament transport in mature myelinated axons of tibial nerves from male and female mice of this strain ex vivo Fluorescent neurofilaments departed the activated region more rapidly in nodes than in flanking internodes, indicating that neurofilament transport is faster in nodes. By computational modeling, we showed that this nodal acceleration can be explained largely by a local increase in the duty cycle of neurofilament transport (i.e., the proportion of the time that the neurofilaments spend moving). We propose that this transient acceleration functions to maintain a constant neurofilament flux across nodal constrictions, much as the current increases where a river narrows its banks. In this way, neurofilaments are prevented from piling up in the flanking internodes, ensuring a stable neurofilament distribution and uniform axonal morphology across these physiologically important axonal domains.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Myelinated axons are constricted at nodes of Ranvier, resulting in a marked local decrease in neurofilament number. These constrictions are important physiologically because they increase the efficiency of saltatory nerve conduction, but they also represent potential bottlenecks for the axonal transport of neurofilaments, which move along axons in a rapid intermittent manner. Imaging of neurofilament transport in mature myelinated axons ex vivo reveals that neurofilament polymers navigate these nodal axonal constrictions by accelerating transiently, much as the current increases where a river narrows its banks. This local acceleration is necessary to ensure a stable axonal morphology across nodal constrictions, which may explain the vulnerability of nodes of Ranvier to neurofilament accumulations in animal models of neurotoxic neuropathies and neurodegenerative diseases.
Keywords: Schwann cell; axonal transport; myelin; myelination; neurofilament; node of Ranvier.
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