The objective of this study was to determine when the retina, lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN), and striate cortex first send out axons, and first connect with each other, during embryonic development in the ferret. Specifically, we were interested in the timing relationship between axon outgrowth and known temporal patterns of neurogenesis in the LGN and striate cortex. Ferrets (Mustela putorius furo) were selected for study because of their immature developmental state in late gestation and relatively large litters.
We examined axon outgrowth from the retina, and anlagen of presumptive LGN and striate cortex between embryonic day 21–30 (E21–E30) using in situ inoculations of two fluorescent lipophilic dyes, Dil and DiA. Dil inoculations were made into the cortex and contralateral thalamus, and DiA inoculations were made into the contralateral eye. Retinal axon termination zones in the diencephalon following the DiA inoculations were used to validate the location of the LGN.
Visual cortex and LGN neurogenesis begins at E20 in ferrets. No axon outgrowth could be documented from retina or anlagen of striate cortex and LGN until E24. At E24 some retinal axons reach and cross the chiasm, cortical axons extend some distance within the cortical radiations, and thalamic axons are within the internal capsule. Retinogeniculate, geniculocortical, and corticogeniculate axons extend to their target structures by E27, as evidenced by retrograde labeling in cells of origin.
These data suggest that in the ferret retina, and developing LGN and striate cortex, (1) axon outgrowth from each visual area begins within 24-h of each other, after neurogenesis has begun at the source but before it is complete in the target; (2) axons may be generated before parent cell bodies have completed migration; and (3) arriving axons are in a position to influence target structures almost from their inception.