A method for clamping cytosolic free Ca2+ ([Ca2+]i) in cultures of rat sympathetic neurons at or below resting levels for several days was devised to determine whether Ca2+ signals are required for neurite outgrowth from neurons that depend on Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) for their growth and survival. To control [Ca2+]i, normal Ca2+ influx was eliminated by titration of extracellular Ca2+ with EGTA and reinstated through voltage-sensitive Ca2+ channels. The rate of neurite outgrowth and the number of neurites thus became dependent on the extent of depolarization by KCl, and withdrawal of KCl caused an immediate cessation of growth. Neurite outgrowth was completely blocked by the L type Ca2+ channel antagonists nifedipine, nitrendipine, D600, or diltiazem at sub- or micromolar concentrations. Measurement of [Ca2+]i in cell bodies using the fluorescent Ca2+ indicator fura-2 established that optimal growth, similar to that seen in normal medium, was obtained when [Ca2+]i was clamped at resting levels. These levels of [Ca2+]i were set by serum, which elevated [Ca2+]i by integral of 30 nM, whereas the addition of NGF had no effect on [Ca2+]i. The reduction of [Ca2+]o prevented neurite fasciculation but this had no effect on the rate of neurite elongation or on the number of extending neurites. These results show that neurite outgrowth from NGF-dependent neurons occurs over long periods in the complete absence of Ca2+ signals, suggesting that Ca2+ signals are not necessary for operating the basic machinery of neurite outgrowth.

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