Researchers discover signaling molecule that helps neurons find their way in the developing brain

November 20, 2015

This image shows a section of the spinal cord of a mouse embryo. Neurons appear green. Commissural axons (which connect the two sides of the brain) appear as long, u-shaped threads, and the bottom, yellow segment of the structure represents the midline (between brain hemispheres). (credit: Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair/ The Rockefeller University)

Rockefeller University researchers have discovered a molecule secreted by cells in the spinal cord that helps guide axons (neuron extensions) during a critical stage of central nervous system development in the embryo. The finding helps solve the mystery: how do the billions of neurons in the embryo nimbly reposition themselves within the brain and spinal cord, and connect branches to form neural circuits?

Working in mice, the researchers identified an axon guidance factor, NELL2, and explained how it makes commissural axons (which connect the two sides of the brain).

The findings could help scientists understand what goes wrong in a rare disease called horizontal gaze palsy with progressive scoliosis. People affected by the condition often suffer from abnormal spine curvature, and are unable to move their eyes horizontally from side to side. The study was published Thursday Nov. 19 in the journal Science.

Abstract of Operational redundancy in axon guidance through the multifunctional receptor Robo3 and its ligand NELL2

Axon pathfinding is orchestrated by numerous guidance cues, including Slits and their Robo receptors, but it remains unclear how information from multiple cues is integrated or filtered. Robo3, a Robo family member, allows commissural axons to reach and cross the spinal cord midline by antagonizing Robo1/2–mediated repulsion from midline-expressed Slits and potentiating deleted in colorectal cancer (DCC)–mediated midline attraction to Netrin-1, but without binding either Slits or Netrins. We identified a secreted Robo3 ligand, neural epidermal growth factor-like-like 2 (NELL2), which repels mouse commissural axons through Robo3 and helps steer them to the midline. These findings identify NELL2 as an axon guidance cue and establish Robo3 as a multifunctional regulator of pathfinding that simultaneously mediates NELL2 repulsion, inhibits Slit repulsion, and facilitates Netrin attraction to achieve a common guidance purpose.