Primary cilia promote the differentiation of human neurons through the WNT signaling pathway

BMC Biol. 2024 Feb 27;22(1):48. doi: 10.1186/s12915-024-01845-w.


Background: Primary cilia emanate from most human cell types, including neurons. Cilia are important for communicating with the cell's immediate environment: signal reception and transduction to/from the ciliated cell. Deregulation of ciliary signaling can lead to ciliopathies and certain neurodevelopmental disorders. In the developing brain cilia play well-documented roles for the expansion of the neural progenitor cell pool, while information about the roles of cilia during post-mitotic neuron differentiation and maturation is scarce.

Results: We employed ciliated Lund Human Mesencephalic (LUHMES) cells in time course experiments to assess the impact of ciliary signaling on neuron differentiation. By comparing ciliated and non-ciliated neuronal precursor cells and neurons in wild type and in RFX2 -/- mutant neurons with altered cilia, we discovered an early-differentiation "ciliary time window" during which transient cilia promote axon outgrowth, branching and arborization. Experiments in neurons with IFT88 and IFT172 ciliary gene knockdowns, leading to shorter cilia, confirm these results. Cilia promote neuron differentiation by tipping WNT signaling toward the non-canonical pathway, in turn activating WNT pathway output genes implicated in cyto-architectural changes.

Conclusions: We provide a mechanistic entry point into when and how ciliary signaling coordinates, promotes and translates into anatomical changes. We hypothesize that ciliary alterations causing neuron differentiation defects may result in "mild" impairments of brain development, possibly underpinning certain aspects of neurodevelopmental disorders.

Keywords: Axon branching; Neuron differentiation; Primary cilia; Transcriptomics time-course; WNT signaling.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing / metabolism
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cilia / metabolism
  • Cytoskeletal Proteins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Neural Stem Cells* / metabolism
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Wnt Signaling Pathway*


  • IFT172 protein, human
  • Cytoskeletal Proteins
  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing