Alpha Motor Neuron - Development


Alpha motor neurons originate in the basal plate, the ventral portion of the neural tube in the developing embryo. Sonic hedgehog (Shh) is secreted by the nearby notochord and other ventral structures (e.g., the floor plate), establishing a gradient of highly concentrated Shh in the basal plate and less concentrated Shh in the alar plate. Under the influence of Shh and other factors, some neurons of the basal plate differentiate into α-MNs.

Like other neurons, α-MNs send axonal projections to reach their target extrafusal muscle fibers via axon guidance, a process regulated in part by neurotrophic factors released by target muscle fibers. Neurotrophic factors also ensure that each muscle fiber is innervated by the appropriate number of α-MNs. As with most types of neurons in the nervous system, α-MNs are more numerous in early development than in adulthood. Muscle fibers secrete a limited amount of neurotrophic factors capable of sustaining only a fraction of the α-MNs that initially project to the muscle fiber. Those α-MNs that do not receive sufficient neurotrophic factors will undergo apoptosis, a form of programmed cell death.

Because they innervate many muscles, some clusters of α-MNs receive high concentrations of neurotrophic factors and survive this stage of neuronal pruning. This is true of the α-MNs innervating the upper and lower limbs: these α-MNs form large cell columns that contribute to the cervical and lumbar enlargements of the spinal cord. In addition to receiving neurotrophic factors from muscles, α-MNs also secrete a number of trophic factors to support the muscle fibers they innervate. Reduced levels of trophic factors contributes to the muscle atrophy that follows an α-MN lesion.

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