Regenerating descending axons preferentially reroute to the gray matter in the presence of a general macrophage/microglial reaction caudal to a spinal transection in adult zebrafish



We analyzed pathway choices of regenerating, mostly supraspinal, descending axons in the spinal cord of adult zebrafish and the cellular changes in the spinal cord caudal to a lesion site after complete spinal transection. Anterograde tracing (by application of the tracer rostral to the spinal lesion site) showed that significantly more descending axons (74%) regenerated in the spinal gray matter of the caudal spinal cord than would be expected from random growth. Retrograde tracing (by application of the tracer caudal to the spinal lesion site) showed that, rostral to the lesion, most of these axons (80%) extended into the major white matter tracts. Thus, ventral descending tracts often were devoid of labeled axons caudal to a spinal lesion but contained many axons rostral to the lesion in the same animals, indicating a pathway switch of descending axons from the white matter to the gray matter. Ascending axons of spinal neurons were not observed regrowing to the rostral tracer application site; therefore, they most likely did not contribute to the axonal populations analyzed. A macrophage/microglia response within 2 days of spinal cord transection, along with phagocytosis of myelin, was observed caudal to the transection by immunohistochemistry and electron microscopy. Nevertheless, caudal to the lesion, descending tracts in the white matter were filled with myelin debris during the time of axonal regrowth, at least up to 6 weeks postlesion. We suggest that the spontaneous regeneration of axons of supraspinal origin after spinal cord transection in adult zebrafish may be due in part to the axons' ability to negotiate novel pathways in the spinal cord gray matter. J. Comp. Neurol. 433:131–147, 2001. © 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.