Binding of the neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM) in neurons to NCAM on non-neuronal cells can stimulate axonal growth. A developmentally regulated loss of this response is associated with the insertion of 10 amino acids (called VASE) into the fourth Ig domain in up to 50% of the NCAM receptors in neurons. In the present study we have transfected PC12 cells with the major neuronal isoforms of human NCAM and tested cells expressing these isoforms for their ability to respond to NCAM in a cellular substratum. Whereas both the 140- and 180-kD isoforms of NCAM can act as functional receptors for neurite outgrowth, the presence of the VASE sequence in a minority of the receptors specifically inhibited this response. A synthetic peptide containing the VASE sequence inhibits neurite outgrowth from PC12 cells and primary neurons stimulated by NCAM. The same peptide has no effect on integrin dependent neurite outgrowth or neurite outgrowth stimulated by N-cadherin or L1. We discuss the possibility that the VASE peptide inhibits the NCAM response by preventing NCAM from binding to the FGF receptor in the plasma membrane.

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