The mechanisms that drive axon regeneration after central nervous system (CNS) injury or disease are proposed to recapitulate, at least in part, the developmental axon growth pathways. This hypothesis is bolstered by a new study by O’Donovan et al. showing that activation of a B-RAF kinase signaling pathway is sufficient to promote robust axon growth not only during development but also after injury.
B-RAF was previously shown to be essential for developmental axon growth but it was not known if additional signaling pathways are required. In this study, the authors demonstrate that activation of B-RAF alone is sufficient to promote sensory axon growth during development. Using a conditional B-RAF gain-of-function mouse model, the authors elegantly prove that B-RAF has a cell-autonomous role in the developmental axon growth program. Notably, activated B-RAF promoted overgrowth of embryonic sensory axons projecting centrally in the spinal cord, suggesting that this pathway may normally be quiescent in central axons.
Could activated B-RAF also enhance axon regeneration in the adult central nervous system? The authors found that activated B-RAF not only enabled sensory axon growth into the spinal cord after spinal injury, but also promoted regrowth of axons projecting in the optic nerve. Regeneration in the injured CNS is prevented by both the poor intrinsic regrowth capacity of axons and by inhibitory factors in the tissue environment. Importantly, the B-RAF–activated signaling growth program was insensitive to this repulsive environment.
Interestingly, the authors find that B-RAF synergizes with the PI3-kinase–mTOR pathway, which also functions downstream of growth factors. This opens the possibility that combinatorial approaches that integrate these two pathways may heighten regenerative capacity.
This in vivo study significantly advances the understanding of the role of MAP kinases in axon growth and suggests that reactivation of the B-RAF pathway may be exploited to promote axon regeneration in the injured central nervous system. An exciting future avenue will be to determine the downstream mechanisms controlled by B-RAF.