Failure of axon regeneration in the central nervous system (CNS) of mammals is due to both extrinsic inhibitory factors and to neuron-intrinsic factors. The importance of intrinsic factors is illustrated in the sea lamprey by the 18 pairs of large, individually identified reticulospinal (RS) neurons, whose axons are located in the same spinal cord tracts but vary greatly in their ability to regenerate after spinal cord transection (TX). The neurons that are bad regenerators also undergo very delayed apoptosis, signaled early by activation of caspases. We noticed that the neurons with a low probability of axon regeneration tend to be larger than the good regenerators. We postulate that the poorly regenerating larger neurons have larger caliber axons, which reseal more slowly, allowing more prolonged entry of toxic signals (e.g., Ca++
) into the axon at the injury site. To test this hypothesis, we used a dye-exclusion assay, applying membrane-impermeable dyes to the cut ends of spinal cords at progressively longer post-TX intervals. Axons belonging to the very small neurons (not individually identified) of the medial inferior RS nucleus resealed within 15 min post-TX. Almost 75% of axons belonging to the medium-sized identified RS neurons resealed within 3 h. At this time, only 36% of the largest axons had resealed, often taking more than 24 h to exclude the dye. There was an inverse relationship between an RS neuron’s size and the probability that its axon would regenerate (r = −0.92) and that the neuron would undergo delayed apoptosis, as indicated by staining with a fluorescently labeled inhibitor of caspases (FLICA; r = 0.73). The artificial acceleration of resealing with polyethylene glycol (PEG) reduced retrograde neuronal apoptosis by 69.5% at 2 weeks after spinal cord injury (SCI), suggesting that axon resealing is a critical determinant of cell survival. Ca++
-free Ringer’s solution with EGTA prolonged the sealing time and increased apoptotic signaling, suggesting that factors other than Ca++
diffusion into the injured tip contribute to retrograde death signaling. A longer distance of the lesion from the cell body reduced apoptotic signaling independent of the axon sealing time.
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