We investigated the effects of calcium removal and calcium ionophores on the behavior and ultrastructure of cultured chick dorsal root ganglia (DRG) neurons to identify possible mechanisms by which calcium might regulate neurite outgrowth. Both calcium removal and the addition of calcium ionophores A23187 or ionomycin blocked outgrowth in previously elongating neurites, although in the case of calcium ionophores, changes in growth cone shape and retraction of neurites were also observed. Treatment with calcium ionophores significantly increased growth cone calcium. The ability of the microtubule stabilizing agent taxol to block A23187-induced neurite retraction and the ability of the actin stabilizing agent phalloidin to reverse both A23187-induced growth cone collapse and neurite retraction suggested that calcium acted on the cytoskeleton. Whole mount electron micrographs revealed an apparent disruption of actin filaments in the periphery (but not filopodia) of growth cones that were exposed to calcium ionophores in medium with normal calcium concentrations. This effect was not seen in cells treated with calcium ionophores in calcium-free medium or cells treated with the monovalent cation ionophore monensin, indicating that these effects were calcium specific. Ultrastructure of Triton X-100 extracted whole mounts further indicated that both microtubules and microfilaments may be more stable or extraction resistant after treatments which lower intracellular calcium. Taken together, the data suggest that calcium may control neurite elongation at least in part by regulating actin filament stability, and support a model for neurite outgrowth involving a balance between assembly and disassembly of the cytoskeleton.

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