In vivo observations of timecourse and distribution of morphological dynamics in Xenopus retinotectal axon arbors

J Neurobiol. 1996 Oct;31(2):219-34. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1097-4695(199610)31:2<219::AID-NEU7>3.0.CO;2-E.


Changes in neuronal structure can contribute to the plasticity of neuronal connections in the developing and mature nervous system. However, the expectation that they would occur slowly precluded many from considering structural changes as a mechanism underlying synaptic plasticity that occurs over a period of minutes to hours. We took time-lapse confocal images of retinotectal axon arbors to determine the timecourse, magnitude, and distribution of changes in axon arbor structure within living Xenopus tadpoles. Images of axons were collected at intervals of 3 min, 30 min, and 2 h over total observation periods up to 8 h. Branch additions and retractions in arbors imaged at 3 or 30 min intervals were confined to shorter branches. Sites of additions and retractions were distributed throughout the arbor. The average lifetime of branches was about 10 min. Branches of up to 10 microns could be added to the arbor within a single 3 min observation interval. Observations of arbors at 3 min intervals showed rapid changes in the structure of branchtips, including transitions from lamellar growth cones to more streamlined tips, growth cone collaps, and re-extension. Simple branchtips were motile and appeared capable of exploratory behavior when viewed in time-lapse movies. In arbors imaged at 2-h intervals over a total of 8 h, morphological changes included longer branches, tens of microns in length. An average of 50% of the total branch length in the arbor was remodeled within 8 h. The data indicate that the elaboration of the arbor occurs by the random addition of branches throughout the arbor, followed by the selective stabilization of a small fraction of the new branches and the retraction of the majority of branches. Stabilized branches can then elongate and support the addition of more branches. These data show that structural changes in presynaptic axons can occur very rapidly even in complex arbors and can therefore play a role in forms of neuronal plasticity that operate on a timescale of minutes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / physiology*
  • Carbocyanines
  • Cell Size
  • Female
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Confocal
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Neurons / ultrastructure
  • Retina / cytology*
  • Retina / growth & development*
  • Superior Colliculi / cytology*
  • Superior Colliculi / growth & development*
  • Synapses / physiology
  • Time Factors
  • Visual Pathways
  • Xenopus laevis


  • CM-DiI
  • Carbocyanines
  • Fluorescent Dyes