Axonal guidance during development of the great cerebral commissures: Descriptive and experimental studies, in vivo, on the role of preformed glial pathways



Do structres exist within the embryonic central nervous system that guide axons across the midline during development of the great cerebral commissures (corpus callosum, anterior commissure)? With the use of serial section and reconstructive computer graphic techniques we have found that during normal ontogeny of the mouse forebrain and before the arrival of the pioneer fibers of the corpus callosum at the midline, a population of primitive glial cells migrates medially (through the fused walls of the dorsal septum) from the ependymal zones of each hemisphere. At the midline, and well rostral to the lamina terminalis, these cells unite to form a bridgelike structure of “sling” suspended below the longitudinal cerebral fissure. The first callosal axons grow along the surface of this cellular bridge as they travel toward the contralateral side of the brain. The “sling” disappears neonatally. The fibers of the anterior commissure grow within the lamina terminalis along a different type of preformed glial structure. Movement of these axons occurs through an aligned system of glial processes separated by wide extracellular spaces.

Do these transient glial tissues actually provide guidance cues to the commissural axons? Analyses of three situations in which the glial “sling” is genetically or surgically impaired or nonexistent indicate that this structure does, indeed, play an essential role in the development of the corpus callosum. We have analyzed (1) the embryonic stages of a congenitally acallosal mouse mutant (strain BALB/cCF), (2) several pouch stages of a primitive acallosal marsupial, Didelphys virginiana (opossum), and (3) animals in which the “sling” had been lesioned surgically through the uterine wall in the normal embryo (strain C57BL/6J).

In the acallosal mouse mutant fusion of the septal midline is delayed by about 72 hours and the “sling” does not form. Although the would-be callosal axons approach the midline on schedule, they do not cross. Instead, the callosal fibers whirl into a pair of large neuromas adjacent to the longitudinal fissure. Similarly, in the opossum, fusion of the medial septal walls and formation of the glial “sling” are also lacking. However, in this species, instead of traveling dorsally, the “callosal” axons turn ventrally and pass contralaterally by way of the anterior commissure pathway. Surgical disunion of the glial “sling” also resulted in acallosal individuals. The callosal pathology in these affected animals mimicked exactly that of the genetically lesioned mutant. Our observations suggest that many different types of oriented glial tissues exist within the embryonic neural anlage. We propose that such tissues have the ability to influence the directionality of axonal movements and, thereby, play a crucial role in establishing orderly fiber projections within the developing central nervous system.