We have studied the effects of proteoglycans (PGs) and glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) on the growth and morphology of neurons in culture. PGs from glial cells or Engelbreth-Holm-Swarm tumor cells (EHS), pure bovine kidney heparan sulfate (HS), shark cartilage type C chondroitin sulfate (CSc) and bovine mucosa dermatan sulfate (DS) added to embryonic rat neurons strongly enhanced total neurite growth after 48 h in vitro. No trophic effects were seen when PGs treated with a mixture of glycanases were used. PGs, CSc and HS not only enhanced neurite growth but induced the appearance of a majority of neurons with a single long axon whereas, in contrast, DS increased dendrite growth. GAGs bound to the cell surface and were rapidly internalized, a feature that correlated well with the absence of neurotrophicity of GAGs previously immobilized on the culture substratum. Although the mechanisms involved in GAGs neurotrophic effects and in the separate regulation of neuronal polarity by HS and DS were not elucidated, we found that, as opposed to HS, DS was able to enhance neuronal adhesion and spreading and to maintain a high level of expression of microtubule-associated protein 2 (MAP2), a specific dendritic marker. This finding confirms and extends our previous observations on the role of adhesion in the regulation of dendrite growth.

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