In the central nervous system (CNS) myelin is present not only in white matter, but also in varying amounts in many gray matter areas. In addition to the function of electrical insulation of axons, myelin and oligodendrocytes contain molecules that are powerful inhibitors of neurite growth. Nevertheless plastic changes involving sprouting of nerve terminals occur in several brain regions of adult animals after partial lesions. In this study we have tried to correlate the plastic potential of CNS regions with the degree of their myelination. The expression of the growth-associated protein GAP-43 was used as an indicator of the potential for plastic changes, and a histological myelin stain was used to assess myelination. We have found that myelination and GAP-43 expression have strikingly inverse expression patterns in the majority of CNS gray matter areas. Densely myelinated regions, that is, most brainstem nuclei, the tegmentum, and the inferior colliculus, are low in GAP-43. In contrast, unmyelinated or lightly myelinated areas, such as the substantia gelatinosa of the spinal cord, the nucleus of the solitary tract, or the septum, express high levels of GAP-43. Areas known to show lesion-induced sprouting are typically high in GAP-43 and only lightly myelinated. During postnatal development the myelination pattern precedes the GAP-43 pattern, a sequence that is consistent with a role of myelin and the associated neurite growth inhibitors in modifying GAP-43 expression.
Our results support the hypothesis that myelin-associated neurite growth inhibitors are involved in regulating the stability of neural connections. © Wiley-Liss, Inc.