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3 Where Magic Happens: Development of the Embryo

3 Where Magic Happens: Development of the Embryo

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Neurulation follows two stages: primary and secondary. Primary neurulation71

begins after gastrulation when the primitive ectoderm is induced by the axial mesoderm to form a neural plate. The neural plate undergoes further elevation, folding,

and fusion to form the neural tube. Neural crest cells migrate from the dorsal aspect

of the neural tube. Primary neurulation forms all functional levels of the brain and

spinal cord to the second sacral level in humans.

The caudal elements of the spinal cord, conus medullaris and filum terminale,

are formed by secondary neurulation,72–78 which begins at a transitional zone where

the dorsally located primary neural tube overlaps the more ventral mesenchymal cells

of the tail bud in the future lumbosacral area. In this overlap zone, randomly arranged

mesenchymal cells condense to form the medullary cord. Radially oriented peripheral

cells surround a cellular central core in the medullary cord. Cavitation occurs centrally,

forming multiple lumina that coalesce to form a secondary neural tube.

The source of secondary neural tube cells is under scrutiny. Recent evidence in

chick embryos suggests that cells may migrate from more rostral neural plates to

attain their proper positions in the secondary neural tubes.79,80 Normal caudal spinal

cord patterning in humans has been described81 and abnormal patterning has been

demonstrated in dysraphic states.82,83 Aberrant positional identity of caudal spinal

cord cells may be a consequence of disrupted positional signals, faulty differentiation, or improper migration. Governing factors in the caudal neural tube pattern such

as the brachyury and Pax-3 patterning genes have not been identified as major factors

in spinal dysraphism.54


Exciting and provocative evidence demonstrates that some manifestations of NTDs

are preventable or reversible at any one of numerous steps along the pathway from

preconception to childhood, and possibly even into adulthood (Figure 10.1). Several

different therapeutic interventions (or “magic pills”) may be developed to treat the

remaining types of NTDs. These pills may target genetic loci, proteins, or any of

several metabolites involved in NTD development.

We now understand a great deal about the development of the neural tube, and

are quickly approaching a more complete genetic characterization of the process.

Ideally, NTDs could be detected early enough in development to target the defects

before any permanent manifestations occurred. The epidemiological studies

described definitively implicate maternal risk factors as well as inheritable and/or

acquired genetic influences that may be targeted. The combination of genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors offers numerous targets for interventions.

Preconception would be the optimal time for prevention. Mothers with modifiable risk factors should be identified and counseled. Perhaps one of the most remarkable advances in NTD treatment has been the introduction of periconceptional folic

acid supplementation for the prevention of myelodysplasias. Whether taken in pill

form or supplemented in dietary flour, this simple and inexpensive measure has cut

the incidence and devastating sequelae of myelomeningocele by more than half.

Despite this extraordinary achievement, it is still a challenge to prevent this unfortunate disorder of aberrant neural tube closure.

© 2005 by CRC Press LLC


Magic Pill

Intra-Uterine Early

Intra-Uterine Late

Magic Repair



FIGURE 10.1 The magic phases of spinal dysraphism.

Other maternal risk factors that may prove important include good control of

diabetes, reduction of obesity and infections, vitamin supplementation (folate, inositol, and vitamin B12), and avoidance of over-heated environments like saunas.

Additionally, mothers taking valproate and carbamazapine antiepileptic medications

should discontinue use or take other medications if possible to eliminate the

increased risk.

It may be possible in some cases to identify mothers with inheritable genetic

predispositions and counsel them during the preconception period in preparation for

possible treatment during pregnancy. Several possible medications could be developed to provide genetic targeting during early fetal development. Tools for targeting

candidate genes at the DNA, RNA, or protein level are all plausible possibilities.

These tools could target defects in genes involved in proper neural tube patterning,

folate-dependent and -independent mechanisms, or healing mechanisms. The next

decade certainly will see attempts at in vitro correction of genetic defects during the

blastocyst stage or manipulation of these genes in utero via delivery systems like

viral vectors.

Several studies with animal models have elucidated some of the genes involved

in the induction of proper neural tube development, for example, Wnt-1, Gnot1 (a

notochord family homeobox gene), HOX-1, and activin.50,56,60 Activin and retinoic

acid regulate Gnot1 expression prior to gastrulation. The neural tube-inducing properties of sonic and bone morphogenic protein genes are also under intense investigation. The Sp mouse model has defects in neural tube closure due to mutations in

the Pax-3 paired box gene.44,45 When genes are deleted or mutated, the fetal cells

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may be transfected in utero with viral vectors expressing the normal gene. Alternatively, embryonic stem cell lines with normal genes may be introduced into target

embryos by blastocyst injection, producing chimeras expressing enough of the normal gene to ameliorate the defective phenotype. Interestingly, folate, the earliest

magic pill, has been shown to prevent NTD in the Sp and other mouse models with

mutations in Cart1 and crooked tail genes.67,84,85

Hyperhomocysteinemia is another risk factor linked to increased risk of NTD

that may be amenable to a genetic tool. The condition appears to be due to homozygosity of a thermolabile MTHFR deficiency.20 Genetic therapy could provide a

solution. Currently available viral vectors could be designed to transfect fetal cells

with the normal MTHFR gene. Hyperhomocysteinemia may also be due to reduced

folate-dependent homocysteine remethylation, which provides another interesting

mechanism for treating NTD.

Cytosine methylation on CpG dinucleotides of genomic DNA is one of many

forms of DNA modifications that help maintain stability of numerous regions of

genomic DNA.86 These heritable CpG methylation sites may be altered in early

embryogenesis, but appear to remain stable with high fidelity afterward.87 This form

of DNA methylation depends on the synthesis of S-adenosylmethionine, which

requires methyl donors and cofactors like folate, vitamin B12, choline chloride, and

anhydrous betaine.88

Maternal nutrition may affect fetal phenotype via DNA methylation. The areas

of methylation that change during embryogenesis are at transposable element insertion sites in the genome that underlie epigenetic-induced phenotypic variability.89

Transient exposure to methyl donors in utero has been demonstrated to shift an

epigenotype via CpG methylation of genomic DNA in mice.19 This experimentally

altered phenotype persisted into adulthood. It is hypothesized that such a mechanism

may underlie the corrected NTD phenotype in folate supplementation. Other methyl

donors may also serve as magic pills.

Another compound that prevented folate resistance NTD in the curly tail mouse

and recently in humans is inositol.90,91 The mechanism may occur via upregulation

of the retinoic acid receptor beta.91,92 Inositol is also important in glucose metabolism

and may play a role in hyperglycemic or obesity-related causes of NTD. All these

therapeutic measures are meant to prevent or correct defects early enough in development to prevent NTDs. However, efforts to correct defects are still needed. Most

forms of what we can designate as “magic repairs” are applied during intrauterine

development or after birth.



In a typical scenario, a child born with a NTD undergoes repair of the defect in the

first few days after birth (as with myelomeningocele) or when neurological deterioration or substantial neurological risk is determined (as with closed dysraphism).

Both paradigms are designed to minimize further risk, prevent progressive functional

loss, and possibly reverse neurological deterioration. Clearly, in the case of an open

NTD, reversal of paralysis or sacral dysfunction is not expected or attained. Novel

repair strategies should be aimed at restoration of neurological function.

© 2005 by CRC Press LLC


Recent evidence suggests that the neurological deterioration associated with open

NTDs may have resulted from progressive intrauterine injury alone or in concert

with the primary defect of neurulation. For example, fetal ultrasonography revealed

that human fetuses with myelomeningoceles retained lower extremity movements

early in gestation and that the movements were lost by term.93 These data and

maternal reports that describe losses of fetal movements suggest that an event

occurring during gestation damaged fetal function.94

In the event of intrauterine injury, intrauterine intervention such as a surgical

repair may protect against progressive neurological deterioration. Animal models

designed with spina bifida were tested after intrauterine repair. Neurological function

was preserved in repaired animals.95 This result led to intrauterine repairs of open,

exposed spinal cords in humans.96,97

To determine the outcomes of fetal myelomeningocele repairs, the National

Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) sponsored the Management of Myelomeningocele Study (MOMS), a continuing clinical trial

[http://www.nichd.nih.gov]. Parameters undergoing study include optimal timing,

neurological recovery, and effects of repairs on associated hydrocephalus and Chiari

II malformations. The study is comparing two approaches to the treatment of babies

with spina bifida: surgery before birth (prenatal surgery) and the standard closure

surgery after birth (postnatal surgery). Preliminary results of human surgery show

failure to preserve fetal neurological function. Furthermore, when it appeared that

spinal cord function was present to a degree, it was less than predicted based on

data from the animal models.98 Improvements in the degree of hindbrain herniation

noted in the associated Chiari II malformation have also been demonstrated.99 Additionally, a reduction in the need for CSF shunting for hydrocephalus has been


Reported complications of fetal myelomeningocele surgery have been few; the

most common complication is preterm delivery.94 Major complications of intrauterine intervention such as maternal death from uterine rupture have been reported for

other types of fetal surgery.101 No uterine rupture resulting in maternal or fetal demise

has been reported to date for fetal myelomeningocele repair.94,97 Technical advancements, such as less invasive endoscopic procedures, have been proposed to avert

this severe complication.102,103

One key to predicting optimal outcomes of novel fetal surgery treatments for

myelomeningocele is understanding the structure of the placode. If the placode

retains normal patterning and is simply un-neurulated, a repair may be effective in

preventing secondary injury. There are mixed reports on whether placodes are normal

in animal models.104,105 Similar controversies surround human studies. Meuli et al.

characterized the human placode as having partial loss of tissue, containing hemorrhages and abrasions, while preserving developed elements of dorsal and ventral

parts of the spinal cord with nerve roots and ganglia.106 The abnormalities were

attributed to intrauterine injury.

Conversely, George and Cummings characterized the placode as having abnormal patterning along the dorsoventral and rostrocaudal axes indicative of a change

© 2005 by CRC Press LLC

in pattern determination and a paucity of maturing neurons with evidence of significant inflammatory infiltrate, gliosis, and fibrosis consistent with secondary injury.83

These data suggest that the myelomeningocele placode shows abnormal development

along with evidence of injury.

Reexamination of the animal model is needed to help clarify this controversy.

George and Fuh made several observations in a review.107 Two definitions of NTDs

were used to describe the surgical models: spina bifida or spina bifida-like and

surgical NTDs. All mammals except mice had spina bifida lesions in which the skin,

muscle, lamina, and dura were opened, but the spinal cord itself was not disturbed.108–112 Surgical NTDs were developed in avian species and mice; the dorsal

elements of the spinal cord were opened and splayed apart, and exposed the central

elements of the spinal cord to the surrounding environment.113–118 The surgical

models uncovered three mechanisms of injury:

1. Toxicity of the amniotic fluid

2. Direct intrauterine trauma

3. Developmental and growth distortion from laminectomy defect

Timing of lesions was critical. Spontaneous healing resulted if lesions occurred

early in gestation instead of later.111,114,117 Subsequent functional outcomes were

virtually indistinguishable between groups lesioned early in gestation and spontaneously healed and repaired fetuses lesioned later in gestation.83 Last, the surgical

animal models used were not the products of abnormal primary neurulation, and

could not directly address questions concerning the placode. These surgical models

represent a reopening mechanism of a closed neural tube that has not been shown

to appear in humans, but was reported in curtailed mouse mutants.119

The future of fetal surgery may rest in uncovering the mechanisms of fetal healing

and directly reconstituting the spinal cord. In the study of fetal wounds, healing was

demonstrated to occur rapidly and without scarring. The exact mechanisms of fetal

scarless healing remain unknown. However, transforming growth factor-beta and

hyaluronic acid-rich wound matrix play pivotal roles in scarless repair.120

The mechanism of annealing or healing that can lead to protection of the neural

tube has also not been defined. The fusion of reapproximated dorsal neural elements

in chicks has been suggested.118 A preliminary study in our laboratory utilizing

surgical NTDs in chicks and adding inhibitors of primary neurulation failed to

prevent reclosure of the neural tube (unpublished data). Therefore, reclosure in

chicks does not appear to be a recapitulation of primary neurulation. The underlying

molecular and cellular mechanisms that regulated the repair remain unclear, but the

ability of spinal cord cells to proliferate appeared important.118 These data suggest

that fetal interventions should be targeted at reinstituting mechanisms of fetal healing

that were turned off after a critical developmental phase.


Current work on restoration of spinal cord function has focused on regeneration

after a spinal cord injury. If the precept from the fetal surgery is true, that the

© 2005 by CRC Press LLC

neurological sequelae in open NTDs are caused by intrauterine injuries, restoration

of cord function should be attainable. In fact, the majority of research has revealed

that an injured spinal cord can be restored by reconstituting or reestablishing molecular or cellular developmental mechanisms.121 Therefore, the developing spinal cord

appears to be the ideal substrate for regeneration of specific cell types and functional

connections as long as the milieu can be properly manipulated.

Paramount for the regeneration of the spinal cord is that the neuron becomes

“regeneration-capable” — it can restore the ability to demonstrate axonal growth

and proper targeting. A number of genes have been shown to be constitutively

expressed or upregulated in response to axonal growth. They have been termed

“regeneration-associated genes” and their products include transcription factors such

as c-jun, cytoskeleton components such as alpha tubulin, cytoplasmic growth cone

proteins such as GAP-43 and CAP-23, and cell adhesion molecules such as NCAM

and L1 that are important for growth cone guidance.122

The rate-limiting factor impacting regeneration is the inhibitory environment of

the mature CNS. CNS inhibition to axonal growth is broadly divided into nonpermissive factors related to myelin and the inhibitory nature of the gliotic scar. Proteins

identified in CNS myelin (NI-35 and NI-250) have been shown to function as neurite

inhibitory factors.123 At the injury site, dead cells, inflammation, and degraded tissue

are present. They contain reactive astrocytes, microglia, oligodendrocytes, and

meningeal cells that form gliotic scars that function as three-dimensional barriers to

axonal growth.124

As noted earlier, George and Cummings demonstrated that the myelomeningocele placode may have abnormal patterning along the dorsoventral and rostrocaudal

axes. This finding is indicative of a change in pattern determination, along with a

paucity of maturing neurons with evidence of significant inflammatory infiltrate,

gliosis, and fibrosis consistent with secondary injury.82 The impact that aberrant

development plays on the ability of the injured placode to regenerate and overcome

the inhibitory environment is unclear and remains a goal of future research.

Regenerative strategies in spinal cord injury include administration of trophic

factors, gene therapy, and cell transplantation. Intrathecal administration of trophic

factors such as neurotropin, nerve growth factor and glial-derived neurotrophic factor

upregulated growth cone proteins such as GAP-43 and CAP-23, propagated axonal

regrowth across an area of crush injury, and established functional connections.125

Interestingly, the administration of folate has been reported to assist in regenerating

axons in a spinal cord injury model via intraperitoneal administration (personal

communication). The mechanism of folate-assisted regeneration remains unknown.

Gene therapy strategies provide a way for longer lasting delivery of important

trophic factors. Trophic genes can be supplied ex vivo to an injured spinal cord by

inserting genetically altered cells that produce trophic factors.126 Another method is

applied in vivo: the neurotrophic gene is tranfected into the native spinal cord, usually

via a viral vector.127 Trophic factors listed above also serve as candidates for gene

therapy. Other classes of gene candidates are endogenous receptors or morphogens

important in embryonic development. For example, retinoic acid (RA) is important

in embryonic neural development69 and has been shown to stimulate embryonic

neurite outgrowth.128 RA administration failed to induce neurite growth in an injured

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adult spinal cord, presumably due to the lack of retinoic acid receptor-beta 2 (RAR

β2) upregulation.129 However, when the RAR β2 is upregulated, neurite outgrowth

can occur.130 Transfection into the adult spinal cord of RAR β2 alone was shown to

stimulate neurite outgrowth.130 Therefore, reinstitution of developmental mechanisms may be another methodology of cord regeneration.

Cellular transplantation strategies are aimed at circumventing the inhibitory

surround created by the gliotic scar. Candidates for transplantation are neural stem

cells and fetal cells that have the potential to develop into mature neurons or glia

and restore function by replacing or repairing axons and synaptic relays.131 Mature

cells such as Schwann cells or olfactory ensheathing cells also provide neurotrophic

support and myelination, thereby enhancing the regenerative environment. How the

myelomeningocele placode would respond to cellular transplantation remains

unclear. The lack of understanding of cell connectivity and patterning and the way

that environment responds to injury makes outcomes unpredictable, but unveils a

focal point for future study.

A final challenge to spinal cord regeneration of a NTD is that most of the studies

examined models of acute injury. Spinal cord dysfunction secondary in the congenital

setting is more likely to be chronic in nature. An important consideration in studies

of chronic injury is the survival of the injured neurons. Reports indicate that 25 to

50% of neurons die as early as 4 weeks postaxotomy,132 while the remaining cells

become atrophic. There is some evidence that trophic factors133 and fetal cell

transplants134 can enhance survival, even if applied 1 year after injury. Since many

patients with open and closed defects will present with neurological dysfunction

within this time frame, attempts at spinal cord regeneration remain viable techniques

to pursue.


The short answer is “yes.” Recent advances in genomics, proteomics, developmental

cell biology, biochemistry, embryology, neurobiology and neuroimaging have created the potential for a “golden age” in the cure of NTDs. Until then, NTDs remain

physically debilitating and are socioeconomic burdens. The time to advance neurosurgical management from supportive to restorative is now. It will be like magic!


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