Neurofilaments in health and disease

Prog Nucleic Acid Res Mol Biol. 1998;61:1-23. doi: 10.1016/s0079-6603(08)60823-5.


This article reviews current knowledge of neurofilament structure, phosphorylation, and function and neurofilament involvement in disease. Neurofilaments are obligate heteropolymers requiring the NF-L subunit together with either the NF-M or the NF-H subunit for polymer formation. Neurofilaments are very dynamic structures; they contain phosphorylation sites for a large number of protein kinases, including protein kinase A (PKA), protein kinase C (PKC), cyclin-dependent kinase 5 (Cdk5), extracellular signal regulated kinase (ERK), glycogen synthase kinase-3 (GSK-3), and stress-activated protein kinase gamma (SAPK gamma). Most of the neurofilament phosphorylation sites, located in tail regions of NF-M and NF-H, consist of the repeat sequence motif, Lys-Ser-Pro (KSP). In addition to the well-established role of neurofilaments in the control of axon caliber, there is growing evidence based on transgenic mouse studies that neurofilaments can affect the dynamics and perhaps the function of other cytoskeletal elements, such as microtubules and actin filaments. Perturbations in phosphorylation or in metabolism of neurofilaments are frequently observed in neurodegenerative diseases. A down-regulation of mRNA encoding neurofilament proteins and the presence of neurofilament deposits are common features of human neurodegenerative diseases, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease. Although the extent to which neurofilament abnormalities contribute to pathogenesis in these human diseases remains unknown, emerging evidence, based primarily on transgenic mouse studies and on the discovery of deletion mutations in the NF-H gene of some ALS eases, suggests that disorganized neurofilaments can provoke selective degeneration and death of neurons. An interference of axonal transport by disorganized neurofilaments has been proposed as one possible mechanism of neurofilament-induced pathology. Other factors that can potentially lead to the accumulation of neurofilaments will be discussed as well as the emerging evidence for neurofilaments as being possible targets of oxidative damage by mutations in the superoxide dismutase enzyme (SOD1); such mutations are responsible for approximately 20% of familial ALS cases.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / genetics
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / pathology
  • Animals
  • Axons / physiology
  • Humans
  • Intermediate Filaments / genetics
  • Intermediate Filaments / metabolism*
  • Intermediate Filaments / ultrastructure*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Neurofilament Proteins / genetics*
  • Neurofilament Proteins / metabolism*
  • Parkinson Disease / pathology
  • Sequence Deletion


  • Neurofilament Proteins
  • neurofilament protein H