Membrane-membrane interactions between axons and Schwann cells are required for initial myelin formation in the peripheral nervous system. However, recent studies of double myelination in sympathetic nerve have indicated that myelin sheaths continue to exist after complete loss of axonal contact (Kidd, G. J., and J. W. Heath. 1988. J. Neurocytol. 17:245-261). This suggests that myelin maintenance may be regulated either by diffusible axonal factors or by nonaxonal mechanisms. To test these hypotheses, axons involved in double myelination in the rat superior cervical ganglion were destroyed by chronic guanethidine treatment. Guanethidine-induced sympathectomy resulted in a Wallerian-like pattern of myelin degeneration within 10 d. In doubly myelinated configurations the axon, inner myelin sheath (which lies in contact with the axon), and approximately 75% of outer myelin sheaths broke down by this time. Degenerating outer sheaths were not found at later periods. It is probably that outer sheaths that degenerated were only partially displaced from the axon at the commencement of guanethidine treatment. In contrast, analysis of serial sections showed that completely displaced outer internodes remained ultrastructurally intact. These internodes survived degeneration of the axon and inner sheath, and during the later time points (2-6 wk) they enclosed only connective tissue elements and reorganized Schwann cells/processes. Axonal regeneration was not observed within surviving outer internodes. We therefore conclude that myelin maintenance in the superior cervical ganglion is not dependent on direct axonal contact or diffusible axonal factors. In addition, physical association of Schwann cells with the degenerating axon may be an important factor in precipitating myelin breakdown during Wallerian degeneration.

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