A mechanistic analysis of nondisruptive axonal injury: a review

J Neurotrauma. 1997 Jul;14(7):419-40. doi: 10.1089/neu.1997.14.419.


Axons are particularly at risk in human diffuse head injury. Use of immunocytochemical labeling techniques has recently demonstrated that axonal injury (AI) and the ensuing reactive axonal change is, probably, more widespread and occurs over a longer posttraumatic time in the injured brain than had previously been appreciated. But the characterization of morphologic or reactive changes occurring after nondisruptive AI has largely been defined from animal models. The comparability of AI in animal models to human diffuse AI (DAI) is discussed and the conclusion drawn that, although animal models allow the analysis of morphologic changes, the spatial distribution within the brain and the time course of reactive axonal change differs to some extent both between species and with the mode of brain injury. Thus, the majority of animal models do not reproduce exactly the extent and time course of AI that occurs in human DAI. Nonetheless, these studies provide good insight into reactive axonal change. In addition, there is developing in the literature considerable variance in the terminology applied to injured axons or nerve fibers. We explain our current understanding of a number of terms now present in the literature and suggest the adoption of a common terminology. Recent work has provided a consensus that reactive axonal change is linked to pertubation of the axolemma resulting in disruption of ionic homeostatic mechanisms within injured nerve fibers. But quantitative data for changes for different ion species is lacking and is required before a better definition of this homeostatic disruption may be provided. Recent studies of responses by the axonal cytoskeleton after nondisruptive AI have demonstrated loss of axonal microtubules over a period up to 24 h after injury. The biochemical mechanisms resulting in loss of microtubules are, hypothetically, mediated both by posttraumatic influx of calcium and activation of calmodulin. This loss results in focal accumulation of membranous organelles in parts of the length of damaged axons where the axonal diameter is greater than normal to form axonal swellings. We distinguish, on morphologic grounds, between axonal swellings and axonal bulbs. There is also a growing consensus regarding responses by neurofilaments after nondisruptive AI. Initially, and rapidly after injury, there is reduced spacing or compaction of neurofilaments. This compaction is stable over at least 6 h and results from the loss or collapse of neurofilament sidearms but retention of the filamentous form of the neurofilaments. We posit that sidearm loss may be mediated either through proteolysis of sidearms via activation of microM calpain or sidearm dephosphorylation via posttraumatic, altered interaction between protein phosphatases and kinase(s), or a combination of these two, after calcium influx, which occurs, at least in part, as a result of changes in the structure and functional state of the axolemma. Evidence for proteolysis of neurofilaments has been obtained recently in the optic nerve stretch injury model and is correlated with disruption of the axolemma. But the earliest posttraumatic interval at which this was obtained was 4 h. Clearly, therefore, no evidence has been obtained to support the hypothesis that there is rapid, posttraumatic proteolysis of the whole axonal cytoskeleton mediated by calpains. Rather, we hypothesize that such proteolysis occurs only when intra-axonal calcium levels allow activation of mM calpain and suggest that such proteolysis, resulting in the loss of the filamentous structure of neurofilaments occurs either when the amount of deformation of the axolemma is so great at the time of injury to result in primary axotomy or, more commonly, is a terminal degenerative change that results in secondary axotomy or disconnection some hours after injury.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / ultrastructure*
  • Brain Injuries / pathology*
  • Brain Injuries / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Microscopy, Electron