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Biophys J. 2012 Feb 8;102(3):452-60. doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2011.12.025. Epub 2012 Feb 7.

Strength in the periphery: growth cone biomechanics and substrate rigidity response in peripheral and central nervous system neurons.

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Department of Physics, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA.


There is now considerable evidence of the importance of mechanical cues in neuronal development and regeneration. Motivated by the difference in the mechanical properties of the tissue environment between the peripheral (PNS) and central (CNS) nervous systems, we compare substrate-stiffness-dependent outgrowth and traction forces from PNS (dorsal root ganglion (DRG)) and CNS (hippocampal) neurons. We show that neurites from DRG neurons display maximal outgrowth on substrates with a Young's modulus of ∼1000 Pa, whereas hippocampal neurite outgrowth is independent of substrate stiffness. Using traction force microscopy, we also find a substantial difference in growth cone traction force generation, with DRG growth cones exerting severalfold larger forces compared with hippocampal growth cones. The traction forces generated by DRG and hippocampal growth cones both increase with increasing stiffness, and DRG growth cones growing on substrates with a Young's modulus of 1000 Pa strengthen considerably after 18-30 h. Finally, we find that retrograde actin flow is almost three times faster in hippocampal growth cones than in DRG. Moreover, the density of paxillin puncta is significantly lower in hippocampal growth cones, suggesting that stronger substrate coupling of the DRG cytoskeleton is responsible for the remarkable difference in traction force generation. These findings reveal a differential adaptation of cytoskeletal dynamics to substrate stiffness in growth cones of different neuronal types, and highlight the potential importance of the mechanical properties of the cellular environment for neuronal navigation during embryonic development and nerve regeneration.

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