Previous studies of denervated and cultured muscle have shown that the expression of the neural cell adhesion molecule (N-CAM) in muscle is regulated by the muscle's state of innervation and that N-CAM might mediate some developmentally important nerve-muscle interactions. As a first step in learning whether N-CAM might regulate or be regulated by nerve-muscle interactions during normal development, we have used light and electron microscopic immunohistochemical methods to study its distribution in embryonic, perinatal, and adult rat muscle. In embryonic muscle, N-CAM is uniformly present on the surface of myotubes and in intramuscular nerves; N-CAM is also present on myoblasts, both in vivo and in cultures of embryonic muscle. N-CAM is lost from the nerves as myelination proceeds, and from myotubes as they mature. The loss of N-CAM from extrasynaptic portions of the myotube is a complex process, comprising a rapid rearrangement as secondary myotubes form, a phase of decline late in embryogenesis, a transient reappearance perinatally, and a more gradual disappearance during the first two postnatal weeks. Throughout embryonic and perinatal life, N-CAM is present at similar levels in synaptic and extrasynaptic regions of the myotube surface. However, N-CAM becomes concentrated in synaptic regions postnatally: it is present in postsynaptic and perisynaptic areas of the muscle fiber, both on the surface and intracellularly (in T-tubules), but undetectable in portions of muscle fibers distant from synapses. In addition, N-CAM is present on the surfaces of motor nerve terminals and of Schwann cells that cap nerve terminals, but absent from myelinated portions of motor axons and from myelinating Schwann cells. Thus, in the adult, N-CAM is present in synaptic but not extrasynaptic portions of all three cell types that comprise the neuromuscular junction. The times and places at which N-CAM appears are consistent with its playing several distinct roles in myogenesis, synaptogenesis, and synaptic maintenance, including alignment of secondary along primary myotubes, early interactions of axons with myotubes, and adhesion of Schwann cells to nerve terminals.

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