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What is a Neurofilament?

By Carey Reeve
Updated Jan 30, 2024
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A neurofilament is an element of the cytoskeleton that is specific to neurons. Neurofilaments are similar to cytoskeletal elements in other cells, but they are made up of a different set of proteins. They are especially numerous in the axons, i.e., long extensions of neurons that generally transmit nerve impulses away from the cell body toward other cells. Several neurological disorders are directly linked to overproduction of neurofilaments.

A cell maintains its shape and conducts the transport of certain cellular components through the cytoplasm by use of its cytoskeleton. Cytoskeletal elements hold the organelles in place and even allow movement in some cells because they are a structural component of cilia and flagella. The cytoskeleton is built of microtubules of about 23 nm, microfilaments of approximately 6 nm, and intermediate filaments of about 10 nm. Intermediate filaments in skin and hair are typically made mostly of keratin while those that are part of the structure of the nuclear membrane in each cell are made of lamin.

A neurofilament is an intermediate filament that is made up of at least two of the three different types of specialized protein subunits. These three types are called Neurofilament light (NF-L), Neurofilament medium (NF-M) and Neurofilament heavy (NF-H); each neurofilament consists of NF-L and either NF-M or NF-H. Other proteins in certain neurofilaments such as Nestin, are found in developing neurons, and vimentin is found in some neurons of the retina as well as developing neurons.

Both dendrites and axons depend heavily on intermediate filaments to form their framework. The surface of a sidearm extension from one end — the C terminus — of each neurofilament is polarized so that neurofilaments within the same dendrite or axon repel each other. This creates a space between them that acts as a passageway for nerve signal conduction and gives the axon added strength. The number of neurofilaments then determines the width of the signal pathway and thus the speed of signal transmission.

Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and giant axonal neuropathy are all disorders that involve an overabundance of neurofilaments. The axons in a neuron with excessive neurofilaments are crowded and unable to transmit nerve signals efficiently. Another neurological disorder linked to a neurofilament dysfunction is Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease which causes axons to deteriorate and nerve cells in some muscle tissue to die. While studying this disease, scientists recently discovered a mutation in the gene that encodes the protein NF-L that may also be involved in other neuropathies.

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Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Dec 07, 2011

@pastanaga - It makes sense, since I was told when my grandfather developed Alzheimer's that it often involves parts of the cells becoming hyperactive and bonding to places where they shouldn't.

This can result in what they call "tangles" which sounds like what they said in the article, where there are too many neurofilaments and it makes it difficult for messages to get through to where they need to in the brain.

I hope that they get better at helping people with this terrible disease soon though. It really does affect the whole family when one person has it.

And the worst thing about it right now is how unpredictable it is.

My grandfather was only slightly forgetful for years, and then in the space of a few months he went downhill.

By pastanaga — On Dec 06, 2011

@Mor - Truthfully, they still don't have a clear picture on what causes Alzheimer's disease. There are all kinds of things that can be observed about it though. And yes, the brain does get small and deteriorate when it has the disease, as you can see in comparison diagrams online.

But, some parts of the brain increase, and I know that there are some kinds of proteins involved in the cytoskeletons of the cells in the brain that increase when someone is suffering from Alzheimer's.

I'm not an expert in it though, so I'm not completely clear about all the affects of this.

But at any rate, while you could definitely say it's a general deterioration of the brain, it's not as simple as just cell death, or even drinking too much. It's a complicated disease.

By Mor — On Dec 06, 2011

I've never heard before that Alzheimer’s disease involved an overabundance of neurofilaments. I thought that that particular disease was all about the deterioration of parts of the brain. We always get taught that the cells in your brain can't regenerate and that's why you eventually get dementia as you grow older, because of the simple fact that you have so few cells left to work with after a certain point. It was one of the ways in which my teachers and my parents tried to scare me away from drinking and doing drugs and so forth. Explaining that doing that could kill off brain cells and make me old before my time.

It must be more complicated than that though if it can also involve the increase of some kinds of cell components in the brain.

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