During the late premetamorphic stages of development, the abdominal ganglion of Aplysia is surrounded by a group of support cells which later develop morphological properties characteristic of glial cells. These support cells contain large secretory granules whose contents are released primarily after the onset of the metamorphic phase. The release of the granule contents may signal the burst of neuronal growth and maturation that occurs following metamorphosis. The evidence supporting this idea is the following: (1) The release of the granule material after the onset of metamorphosis coincides with an increase in cell body growth and a more marked increase in the density of synapses within the neuropil. Both release and neuronal maturation can be blocked when metamorphosis is postponed by withholding the appropriate macroalgal substrate. (2) Premature release of the granule contents 2-3 weeks before metamorphosis with artificial sea water containing a high concentration of potassium results in an increase in cell body growth, density of synapses, and the number of spines formed and contacts received by specific identified cells. (3) Artificially inducing the release of the granule material in animals whose metamorphosis has been prevented (by withholding the appropriate substrate) still produces an increase in cell body growth and density of synapses. These results suggest that the release of material from support cell granules provides a general stimulus for neuronal differentiation including cell body growth, spine development, and synapse formation.

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