Axonal autophagy during regeneration of the rat sciatic nerve**⋆

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The removal of degenerated axonal debris during Wallerian degeneration is very important for nerve regeneration. However, the mechanism by which debris is removed is not been completely understood. Considerable controversy remains as to the clearance pathway and cells that are involved.


To investigate axonal autophagy during removal of degenerated axonal debris by transecting the sciatic nerve in a rat Wallerian degeneration model.


Experimental neuropathological analysis. The experiment was conducted at the Laboratory Animal Service Center of the Southern Medical University between January and June 2005.


Fifty-four adult, Wistar rats of either sex, weighing 180–250 g, were obtained from the Laboratory Animal Service Center of the Southern Medical University. Animals were randomly divided into nine groups of six rats.


Wallerian degeneration was induced by transecting the rat sciatic nerve, and tissue samples from the distal stump were obtained 0.2, 0.4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 10, and 15 days post-transection. Ultrathin sections were prepared for electron microscopy to study ultrastructure and enzyme cytochemistry staining.


Ultrastructure (axon body, autophagic body, and cystoskeleton) of axons and myelin sheaths observed with electron microscopy; acidic phosphatase activity detected by Gomori staining using electron microscopy.


The major changes of degenerating axons after transection were axoplasm swelling and separation of axons from their myelin sheath between five hours and two days post-transection. At four days post-transection, the axoplasm condensed and axons were completely separated from the myelin sheath, forming dissociative axon bodies. Vacuoles of different sizes formed in axons during the early phase after lesion. Larger dissociative axon bodies were formed when the axons were completely separated from the myelin sheath during a late phase. The axolemma surrounding the axon body was derived from the neuronal cell membrane; the condensed axoplasm contained many autophagic vacuoles at all levels. A large number of neurofilaments, microtubules, and microfilaments were arranged in a criss-cross pattern. The autophagic vacuoles exhibited acidic phosphatase activity. Axonal bodies were absorbed after degradation from day 7 onwards, and macrophages were observed rarely in the formative cavity.


The degenerating axons were cleared mainly by axonal autophagy and Schwann cell phagocytosis during regeneration of the rat sciatic nerve, and macrophages exhibited only an assisting function.

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