A functionally coupled organotypic complex of cultured dorsal root ganglia, spinal cord peripheral nerve, and muscle has been employed in an experimental approach to the investigation of the neurotoxic effects of thallium. Selected cultures, grown for up to 12 wk in vitro, were exposed to thallous salts for periods ranging up to 4 days. Cytopathic effects were first detected after 2 h of exposure with the appearance of considerably enlarged mitochondria in axons of peripheral nerve fibers. With time, the matrix space of these mitochondria became progressively swollen, transforming the organelle into an axonal vacuole bounded by the original outer mitochondrial membrane. Coalescence of adjacent axonal vacuoles produced massive internal axon compartments, the membranes of which were shown by electron microprobe mass spectrometry to have an affinity for thallium. Other axoplasmic components were displaced within a distended but intact axolemma. The resultant fiber swelling caused myelin retraction from nodes of Ranvier but no degeneration. Impulses could still propagate along the nerve fibers throughout the time course of the experiment. Comparable, but less severe changes were seen in dorsal root ganglion neurons and in central nerve fibers. Other cell types showed no mitochondrial change. It is uncertain how these findings relate to the neurotoxic effects of thallium in vivo, but a sensitivity of the nerve cell and especially its axon to thallous salts is indicated.

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