Journal of Neurocytology

, Volume 21, Issue 11, pp 755–787 | Cite as

Regeneration of adult rat CNS axons into peripheral nerve autografts: ultrastructural studies of the early stages of axonal sprouting and regenerative axonal growth

  • G. Campbell
  • A. R. Lieberman
  • P. N. Anderson
  • M. Turmaine


If one end of a segment of peripheral nerve is inserted into the brain or spinal cord, neuronal perikarya in the vicinity of the graft tip can be labelled with retrogradely transported tracers applied to the distal end of the graft several weeks later, showing that CNS axons can regenerate into and along such grafts. We have used transmission EM to examine some of the cellular responses that underlie this regenerative phenomenon, particularly its early stages. Segments of autologous peroneal or tibial nerve were inserted vertically into the thalamus of anaesthetized adult albino rats. The distal end of the graft was left beneath the scalp. Between five days and two months later the animals were killed and the brains prepared for ultrastructural study. Semi-thin and thin sections through the graft and surrounding brain were examined at two levels 6–7 mm apart in all animals: close to the tip of the graft in the thalamus (proximal graft) and at the top of the cerebral cortex (distal graft). In another series of animals with similar grafts, horseradish peroxidase was applied to the distal end of the graft 24–48 h before death. Examination by LM of appropriately processed serial coronal sections of the brains from these animals confirmed that up to several hundred neurons were retrogradely labelled in the thalamus, particularly in the thalamic reticular nucleus.

Between five and 14 days after grafting, large numbers of tiny (0.05–0.20 μm diameter) nonmyelinated axonal profiles, considered to be axonal sprouts, were observed by EM within the narrow zone of abnormal thalamic parenchyma bordering the graft. The sprouts were much more numerous (commonly in large fascicles), smoother surfaced, and more rounded than nonmyelinated axons further from the graft or in corresponding areas on the contralateral side of animals with implants or in normal animals. At longer post-graft survival times, the number of such axons in the parenchyma around the graft declined.

At five days, some axonal sprouts had entered the junctional zone between the brain and the graft. By eight days there were many sprouts in the junctional zone and some had penetrated the proximal graft to lie between its basal lamina-enclosed columns of Schwann cells, macrophages and myelin debris. Within the brain, sprouts were in contact predominantly with other sprouts but also with all types of glial cell. Within the junctional zone and graft many sprouts showed no consistent, close associations with other cell processes, although some were in contact or adjacent to processes of astrocytes, Schwann cells or macrophages. There was no evidence to suggest that axonal sprouts grew along astrocytic extensions to reach the junctional zone and graft. At eight days many axons in the junctional zone and graft were in contact with Schwann cell processes. Such axons, particularly those in intimate contact with the Schwann cell, were larger than those which had not established contact. By 14 days, most axons in the proximal graft were surrounded by Schwann cell processes, predominantly in basal lamina-enclosed columns. Some axons were associated with astrocyte processes, either in basal lamina-enclosed columns containing only astrocyte processes and axons or in columns containing a mixture of astrocyte and Schwann cell processes. The astrocyte processes involved in such bundles were concentrated at the periphery of the proximal graft, were not seen in the distal graft and probably represent long finger-like extensions of the astrocytes which rapidly form a glia limitans at the interface between brain and graft. This glia limitans was partially constructed at five days, almost complete at 14 days and subsequently became progressively thicker and more complex.

At one month the proximal graft had acquired many of the features of a regenerating peripheral nerve and axons were present in large numbers in the distal graft. However the axon-Schwann cell relationships were immature in many of the Schwann cell columns both proximally and distally at one month, and virtually no myelination was apparent. At two months there were numerous myelinated fibres both proximally and distally although there were larger numbers of nonmyelinated axons, many in immature relationship with associated Schwann cells. Thus the graft appears to offer not only support for axonal elongation but also for a substantial degree of maturation of at least some of the regenerating axons, although (as will be reported elsewhere), the regenerated nerve fibres began to regress after two months.


Schwann Cell Junctional Zone Thalamic Reticular Nucleus Glia Limitans Astrocyte Process 
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Copyright information

© Chapman and Hall Ltd 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • G. Campbell
    • 1
  • A. R. Lieberman
    • 1
  • P. N. Anderson
    • 1
  • M. Turmaine
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Anatomy and Developmental BiologyUniversity College LondonLondonUK

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