Stochastic dynamics of the nerve growth cone and its microtubules during neurite outgrowth

David J. Odde, Elly M. Tanaka, Stacy S. Hawkins, Helen M. Buettner

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The controlled extension of neurites is essential not only for nervous system development, but also for effective nerve regeneration after injury. This process is critically dependent on microtubule assembly since axons fail to elongate in the presence of drugs which disrupt normal assembly dynamics. For this reason, neurite outgrowth is potentially controllable by manipulation of the assembly state of the intracellular array of microtubules. Therefore, understanding how microtubule assembly dynamics and neurite outgrowth are coupled, in the absence of drugs, can lend valuable insight into the control and guidance of the outgrowth process. In the present study we characterized the stochastic dynamics of neurite outgrowth and its corresponding microtubule array, which advances concomitantly with the advance of the nerve growth cone, the highly motile structure at the terminus of the growing neurite, using reported fluorescent microscopic image sequences (Tanaka and Kirschner, 1991, J. Cell Biol. 115:345-363). Although previously modeled as an uncorrelated random walk, the stochastic advance of the growth cone was found to be anticorrelated over a time scale of ~4 min, meaning that growth cone advances tended to be followed by growth cone retractions ~4 min later. The observed anticorrelation most likely reflects the periodic stops and starts of neurite outgrowth that have been reported anecdotally. A strikingly similar pattern of anticorrelation was also identified in the advance of the growth cone's microtubule array. Cross- correlation analysis showed that growth cone dynamics tended to precede microtubule dynamics on a time scale of ~0-2 min, while microtubules tended to precede growth cone dynamics on a ~0-20-s time scale, indicating a close temporal coupling between microtubule and growth cone dynamics. Finally, the scaling of the mean-squared displacements with time for both the growth cone and microtubules suggested a fractional Brownian motion model which accounts for the observed anticorrelation of growth cone and microtubule advance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)452-461
Number of pages10
JournalBiotechnology and bioengineering
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 20 1996


  • anticorrelation
  • cell motility
  • cytoskeletal dynamics
  • neurites
  • time series analysis


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