The role of neurofilaments, the intermediate filaments of nerve cells, has been conjectural. Previous morphological studies have suggested a close relationship between neurofilament content and axonal caliber. In this study, the regenerating neuron was used as a model system for testing the hypotheses that neurofilaments are intrinsic determinants of axonal caliber, and that neurofilament content is controlled by the axonal transport of neurofilaments. This system was chosen because previous studies had shown that, after axotomy, axonal caliber was reduced within the proximal stump of the regenerating nerve and, because the relative amount of neurofilament protein undergoing axonal transport in regenerating axons was selectively reduced. The relationship between axonal caliber and neurofilament number was examined in a systematic fashion in both regenerating and control motor axons in rat L5 ventral root. Reconstruction of the spatial and temporal sequences of axonal atrophy in the proximal stump after axotomy showed that reductions in axonal caliber were first detected in the most proximal region of the root and subsequently progressed in a proximal-to-distal direction at a rate of 1.7 mm/day, which is identical to the rate of neurofilament transport in these neurons. Quantitative ultrastructural studies showed that these reductions in caliber correlated with a proportional decrease in the number of axonal neurofilaments but not microtubules. These results support the hypotheses that neurofilament content is a major intrinsic determinant of axonal caliber and that neurofilament content is controlled by the axonal transport of neurofilaments. On this basis, we suggest a role for neurofilaments in the control of axonal volume.

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