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Abstract

Axonal degeneration is a major cause of permanent deficit in inflammatory neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Axons undergo degeneration specifically at the site of the inflammatory lesions, suggesting that locally produced inflammatory factors mediate the phenomenon. One such factor is nitric oxide (NO), which we have previously reported can cause reversible conduction block in axons. Here we confirm these observations and extend them to show that axons exhibit the early stages of wallerian degeneration if they are conducting impulses at physiological frequencies while they are exposed to the low micromolar concentrations of NO that are likely to occur at sites of inflammation. Rat dorsal roots were concurrently exposed in vivo to both NO and sustained impulse activity at 1, 50, or 100 Hz. Although our in vivo observations necessarily focused on the more acute responses, morphological examination of exposed roots at the end of the recording period revealed nodal and paranodal changes consistent with acute wallerian degeneration in roots stimulated at 50 or 100 Hz. This interpretation was confirmed in a few experiments that were prolonged to permit more obvious indicators of degeneration to develop. In these experiments the formation of myelin ovoids and frank axonolysis occurred in more than 95% of fibers. Roots stimulated at only 1 Hz appeared normal. We propose that the combination of normal impulse traffic and NO at sites of inflammation may cause axonal degeneration and that electrical activity may therefore be an important factor in causing permanent disability in patients with neuroinflammatory disorders. Ann Neurol 2001;49:470–476