I have compared central nervous system (CNS) neurite outgrowth on glial and nonglial cells. Monolayers of glial cells (astrocytes and Schwann cells) or nonglial cells (e.g., fibroblasts) were prepared and were shown to be greater than 95% pure as judged by cell type-specific markers. These monolayers were then tested for their ability to support neurite outgrowth from various CNS explants. While CNS neurites grew vigorously on the glial cells, most showed little growth on nonglial cell monolayers. Neurites grew singly or in fine fascicles on the glial cells at rates greater than 0.5 mm/d. The neurite outgrowth on astrocytes was investigated in detail. Scanning and transmission electron microscopy showed that the neurites were closely apposed to the astrocyte surface and that the growth cones were well spread with long filopodia. There was no evidence of significant numbers of explant-derived cells migrating onto the monolayers. Two types of experiments indicated that factors associated with the astrocyte surface were primarily responsible for the vigorous neurite outgrowth seen on these cells: (a) Conditioned media from either astrocytes or fibroblasts had no effect on the pattern of outgrowth on fibroblasts and astrocytes, and conditioned media factors from either cell type did not promote neurite outgrowth when bound to polylysine-coated dishes. (b) When growing CNS neurites encountered a boundary between astrocytes and fibroblasts, they stayed on the astrocytes and did not encroach onto the fibroblasts. These experiments strongly suggest that molecules specific to the surfaces of astrocytes make these cells particularly attractive substrates for CNS neurite outgrowth, and they raise the possibility that similar molecules on embryonic glial cells may play a role in guiding axonal growth during normal CNS development.

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