The neural cell adhesion molecule (N-CAM) is a membrane glycoprotein involved in neuron-neuron and neuron-muscle adhesion. It can be synthesized in various forms by both nerve and muscle and it becomes concentrated at the motor endplate. Biochemical analysis of a frog muscle extract enriched in basal lamina revealed the presence of a polydisperse, polysialylated form of N-CAM with an average Mr of approximately 160,000 as determined by SDS-PAGE, which was converted to a form of 125,000 Mr by treatment with neuraminidase. To define further the role of N-CAM in neuromuscular junction organization, we studied the distribution of N-CAM in an in vivo preparation of frog basal lamina sheaths obtained by inducing the degeneration of both nerve and muscle fibers. Immunoreactive material could be readily detected by anti-N-CAM antibodies in such basal lamina sheaths. Ultrastructural analysis using immunogold techniques revealed N-CAM in close association with the basal lamina sheaths, present in dense accumulation at places that presumably correspond to synaptic regions. N-CAM epitopes were also associated with collagen fibrils in the extracellular matrix. The ability of anti-N-CAM antibodies to perturb nerve regeneration and reinnervation of the remaining basal lamina sheaths was then examined. In control animals, myelinating Schwann cells wrapped around the regenerated axon and reinnervation occurred only at the old synaptic areas; new contacts between nerve and basal lamina had a terminal Schwann cell capping the nerve terminal. In the presence of anti-N-CAM antibodies, three major abnormalities were observed in the regeneration and reinnervation processes: (a) regenerated axons in nerve trunks that had grown back into the old Schwann cell basal lamina were rarely associated with myelinating Schwann cell processes, (b) ectopic synapses were often present, and (c) many of the axon terminals lacked a terminal Schwann cell capping the nerve-basal lamina contact area. These results suggest that N-CAM may play an important role not only in the determination of synaptic areas but also in Schwann cell-axon interactions during nerve regeneration.

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