Individual neurons can express both the neural cell adhesion molecule (N-CAM) and the neuron-glia cell adhesion molecule (Ng-CAM) at their cell surfaces. To determine how the functions of the two molecules may be differentially controlled, we have used specific antibodies to each cell adhesion molecule (CAM) to perturb its function, first in brain membrane vesicle aggregation and then in tissue culture assays testing the fasciculation of neurite outgrowths from cultured dorsal root ganglia, the migration of granule cells in cerebellar explants, and the formation of histological layers in the developing retina. Our strategy was initially to delineate further the binding mechanisms for each CAM. Antibodies to Ng-CAM and N-CAM each inhibited brain membrane vesicle aggregation but the binding mechanisms of the two CAMs differed. As expected from the known homophilic binding mechanism of N-CAM, anti-N-CAM-coated vesicles did not co-aggregate with uncoated vesicles. Anti-Ng-CAM-coated vesicles readily co-aggregated with uncoated vesicles in accord with a postulated heterophilic binding mechanism. It was also shown that N-CAM was not a ligand for Ng-CAM. In contrast to assays with brain membrane vesicles, cellular systems can reveal functional differences for each CAM reflecting its relative amount (prevalence modulation) and location (polarity modulation). Consistent with this, each of the three cellular processes examined in vitro was preferentially inhibited only by anti-N-CAM or by anti-Ng-CAM antibodies. Both neurite fasciculation and the migration of cerebellar granule cells were preferentially inhibited by anti-Ng-CAM antibodies. Anti-N-CAM antibodies inhibited the formation of histological layers in the retina. The data on perturbation by antibodies were correlated with the relative levels of expression of Ng-CAM and N-CAM in each of these different neural regions. Quantitative immunoblotting experiments indicated that the relative Ng-CAM/N-CAM ratios in comparable extracts of brain, dorsal root ganglia, and retina were respectively 0.32, 0.81, and 0.04. During culture of dorsal root ganglia in the presence of nerve growth factor, the Ng-CAM/N-CAM ratio rose to 4.95 in neurite outgrowths and 1.99 in the ganglion proper, reflecting both polarity and prevalence modulation. These results suggest that the relative ability of anti-Ng-CAM and anti-N-CAM antibodies to inhibit cell-cell interactions in different neural tissues is strongly correlated with the local Ng-CAM/N-CAM ratio.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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