During neurulation in rat embryos, the forebrain grows more rapidly than can be accounted for by intrinsic cell division alone, while the adjacent midbrain/rostral hindbrain maintains a constant cell number despite a high mitotic index (the cell cycle time is 6 h throughout the neural epithelium). We have proposed that neuroepithelial cells flow in a rostral direction within the midbrain/rostral hindbrain region, towards and into the rapidly expanding forebrain. Evidence in support of this hypothesis is provided by cell-labelling studies: labelled neuroepithelial cells were injected into specific sites in the midbrain or rostral hindbrain neuroepithelium of unlabelled embryos; after culture of these embryos for 24 h, the labelled cells were found in positions rostral to the injection sites.

In the midbrain/rostral hindbrain region, mitotic spindles were found to be predominantly orientated parallel with the long axis of the embryo; transversely orientated spindles were more frequently observed close to the lateral edges than more medially. Neural crest cells emigrate from the lateral edges during neurulation. These observations suggest that mitotic spindle orientation reflects the direction of cell movement: in the lateral region movement towards the lateral edge would maintain cell number in the transverse plane as neural crest cells emigrate; elsewhere, cells are moving mainly in the longitudinal plane, towards the forebrain. The possible causal relationship between cell movement and mitotic spindle orientation is discussed.

Cell flow within the intact neural epithelium is compared with cell flow in the intestinal villus epithelium. Other types of epithelial cell movement observed in the cranial neural epithelium during neurulation include expansion and shrinkage of the epithelial surface associated with change of cell shape and microfilament-mediated curvature. Cell rearrangement involving exchange of neighbours and cell movement towards and into a site of epithelio–mesenchymal conversion are also implicated.

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