Retinal ganglion neurons extend axons that grow along astroglial cell surfaces in the developing optic pathway. To identify the molecules that may mediate axon extension in vivo, antibodies to neuronal cell surface proteins were tested for their effects on neurite outgrowth by embryonic chick retinal neurons cultured on astrocyte monolayers. Neurite outgrowth by retinal neurons from embryonic day 7 (E7) and E11 chick embryos depended on the function of a calcium-dependent cell adhesion molecule (N-cadherin) and beta 1-class integrin extracellular matrix receptors. The inhibitory effects of either antibody on process extension could not be accounted for by a reduction in the attachment of neurons to astrocytes. The role of a third cell adhesion molecule, NCAM, changed during development. Anti-NCAM had no detectable inhibitory effects on neurite outgrowth by E7 retinal neurons. In contrast, E11 retinal neurite outgrowth was strongly dependent on NCAM function. Thus, N-cadherin, integrins, and NCAM are likely to regulate axon extension in the optic pathway, and their relative importance varies with developmental age.

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