Neural crest-derived tissues

Author: Heather Etchevers
Submitted: Monday 14th of September 2009 02:23:21 PM
Submitted by: egf
Educational levels: qc2, qc3


Neural crest cells (NCC) form in the human embryo during the third to fifth weeks of pregnancy by migrating away from the neuroepithelium, itself derived from the ectoderm. NCC derivatives include the neurons and support cells of the entire peripheral nervous system (sensory and autonomic), adrenergic and other endocrine cells, and all pigment cells except those arising from the retina. In the head, in addition to the above cell types, NCC differentiate into connective and structural tissues such as dermis, bones and cartilage of most of the skull and muscle tendons. They also infiltrate and are essential for the function of glandular and vascular elements such as the thymus, the thyroid and parathyroid glands, a distinct sector of the heart and vascular tree, giving rise to connective, adipose and smooth muscle cells. This diversity has led to the NCC population being nicknamed the “fourth embryonic germ layer”. NCC in fact have a great deal in common with stem cells. Therefore, problems affecting their self-renewal, programmed cell death, or differentiation lead to a large class of malformations and cancers known as “neurocristopathies” and discussed in depth in other lectures. NCC colonize four body sectors unequal in size and, of course, distribution: the skin, the peripheral nervous system, parts of the endocrine system and a pharyngocephalic pole. Anomalies affecting any of these compartments will warrant closer examination of the other compartments. This course will discuss the time- and environmentally dependent differentiation of NCC. We will touch on a few of the molecular properties that determine fate decisions and how they tie in with human pathology. We will also explore the idea that embryological lineage relationships can guide the clinician to understanding the diversity of organs affected in certain complex syndromes. The talk will focus in particular on facial dysmorphy and the intimate relationship between skull, heart and brain development.


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Heather Etchevers. Neural crest-derived tissues. EUROGENE portal. September 2009. online:

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