The delivery of neurofilaments via axonal transport has been proposed as an important mechanism for regulating axonal caliber. If this hypothesis is correct, alterations in axonal caliber should appear coincident with changes in the delivery of neurofilaments to the axon. The purpose of this study was to determine whether alterations in the caliber of axons in the proximal stumps of transected motor fibers precede, coincide with, or occur substantially later than changes in the delivery of neurofilaments via axonal transport. Between 3 d and 12 wk after crushing the sciatic nerves of 7-wk-old rats, lumbar motor neurons were labeled by the intraspinal injection of [35S]methionine. In neurons labeled between 3 d and 6 wk after axotomy, the relative amount of neurofilament protein in the slow component, as reflected by the ratio of the radioactivities of the 145-kD neurofilament protein to tubulin, was reduced to 30-40% of the control value. Moreover, as determined by immunoreactivity on blots, the amounts of neurofilament protein and tubulin in these nerve fibers were reduced fourfold and twofold, respectively. Thus, changes in the ratio of labeled neurofilament protein to tubulin correlated with comparable changes in the quantities of these proteins in nerve fibers. This decrease in the quantity of neurofilament proteins delivered to axons coincided temporally with reductions in axonal caliber. After regeneration occurred, the delivery of neurofilament proteins returned to pre-axotomy levels (i.e., 8 wk after axotomy), and caliber was restored with resumption of normal age-related radial growth of these axons. Thus, changes in axonal caliber coincided temporally with alterations in the delivery of neurofilament proteins. These results suggest that the majority of neurofilaments in these motor fibers continuously move in the anterograde direction as part of the slow component of axonal transport and that the transport of neurofilaments plays an important role in regulating the caliber of these axons.

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