Quantification of the mononuclear phagocyte response to Wallerian degeneration of the optic nerve

J Neurocytol. 1994 Dec;23(12):729-44. doi: 10.1007/BF01268086.


We investigated the numbers, origin and phenotype of mononuclear phagocytes (macrophages/microglia) responding to Wallerian degeneration of the mouse optic nerve in order to compare it with the response to Wallerian degeneration in the PNS, already described. We found macrophage/microglial numbers elevated nearly four fold in the distal segments of crushed optic nerves and their projection areas in the contralateral superior colliculus 1 week after unilateral optic nerve crush. This relative increase in mononuclear phagocyte numbers compared well with the four-to-five-fold increases reported in the distal segments of transected saphenous or sciatic nerves. Moreover, maximum numbers are reached at 3, 5 and 7 days in the saphenous, sciatic and optic nerves respectively, suggesting that the very slow clearance of axonal debris and myelin in CNS undergoing Wallerian degeneration is not simply due to a slow or small mononuclear phagocyte response. The apparent delay in the response in the CNS occurs because the mononuclear phagocytes respond to the Wallerian degeneration of axons, which is slightly slower in the CNS than the PNS, rather than to events associated with the crush itself, such as the abolition of normal electrical activity in the distal segment. This was demonstrated by the protracted time course of the mononuclear phagocyte response in the distal segment following optic nerve crush in mice carrying the Wlds mutation which dramatically slows the rate at which the axons undergo Wallerian degeneration. By [3H]-Thymidine labelling or by blocking microglial proliferation by X-irradiation of the head prior to optic nerve crush, we showed that the majority of macrophages/microglia initiating the response to Wallerian degeneration were of local, CNS origin but these cells rapidly (from 3 days post crush) upregulate endocytic and phagocytic functional markers although they do not resemble rounded myelin-phagocytosing macrophages observed in degenerating peripheral nerves. We speculate that the poor clearance of myelin in CNS fibre tracts undergoing Wallerian degeneration compared to the PNS, in the face of a mononuclear phagocyte response which is similar in relative magnitude and time course, is because Schwann cells in degenerating peripheral nerves promptly modify their myelin sheaths such that they can be recognized and phagocytosed by macrophages, whilst in the CNS oligodendrocytes do not.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Axons / physiology
  • Cell Survival
  • Female
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class II / analysis
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Macrophage-1 Antigen / analysis
  • Macrophages / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Neurologic Mutants
  • Microglia / physiology*
  • Necrosis
  • Nerve Crush
  • Optic Nerve / physiology*
  • Peripheral Nerves / cytology
  • Peripheral Nerves / physiology*
  • Phenotype
  • Sciatic Nerve / cytology
  • Sciatic Nerve / physiology
  • Superior Colliculi / cytology
  • Superior Colliculi / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Wallerian Degeneration* / genetics


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class II
  • Macrophage-1 Antigen