A brief history of myelinated nerve fibers: one hundred and fifty years of controversy

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The early controversies over myelinated nerve fibers focused on whether nerves are hollow or not, whether the fatty “marrow” (myelin) is inside the nerve fiber or around it, whether myelin is secreted by the axon or formed by another cell, whether nerve fibers are discrete or part of a syncytial network, whether nodes of Ranvier are present in central myelin or only in peripheral myelin. Since Geren's seminal discovery that peripheral myelin is formed by the Schwann cell plasma membrane wrapped around the axon, the focus has shifted. Myelin is clearly a living cell appendage, and the myelin sheath is dependent upon intercellular interactions not only during its formation, but throughout its lifetime and during pathological processes affecting either the axon or the myelin-forming cell. The myelinated fiber is a functional unit, an exquisite symbiosis, whose ability to perform optimally, in some cases whose very survival, depends on the effects the respective cells exert on one another. How are these interactions mediated? Which structures and functions depend on such interaction and which are independent of it? How do cells of the size and shape of myelin-forming cells cope with their metabolic demands and support their most distal components? What are the mechanisms and mutual consequences of demyelination or axonopathy? Relevant studies have burgeoned with the development of molecular biological and genetic engineering methods, and with improvements in microscopy, in vitro culture and specific immunostaining methods. This introductory essay provides an overview of the structural background and continuing controversies relevant to the articles that follow, which represent a sampling of current work and present new information on the molecular structure, function and pathology of myelin and axoglial interactions.

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