Vertebrate Embryo: Neural Patterning


Neural patterning is a process by which neural cells acquire region‐specific identity and features during embryogenesis. It takes place during gastrulation and progressive neural induction and continues after the neural induction for further refined patterns and specification. Tissue interactions and signalling play key roles in neural patterning. The main signals include retinoids, fibroblast growth factors, Wnts, BMP (bone morphogenetic protein) and Shh (Sonic hedgehog). Following the signalling‐based patterning, expression of transcription factors, such as Hox genes for anterior–posterior (rostral–caudal) axis and other homeobox or paired‐box containing genes, consolidate the induced pattern. Combinatorial expression of such genes forms functional compartments or groups of cells in the right position in the developing CNS, providing the basis for further neuronal networking. The knowledge of neural patterning by signalling mechanisms is now used in stem cell technologies, enabling us to obtain specific neuronal subtypes in vitro.

Key Concept

  • Neural patterning is the process through which neural progenitors acquire positional identities.
  • The initial allocation of positional information along the anterior–posterior (=rostral–caudal) axis is mainly provided by retinoic acid, fibroblast growth factors and Wnts. This is followed by expression of transcription factors; for example, Hox genes for the anterior–posterior (rostral–caudal) axis.
  • The main signals for dorsal‐ventral patterning are Shh and BMP.
  • Neural patterning is accompanied by specific gene expression in groups of cells. This has led to refined neuroanatomy mapping based on the ontogeny.
  • The knowledge on neural patterning in embryogenesis has enabled us to develop methods to develop specific neuronal subtypes from stem cells in vitro.

Keywords: anterior–posterior; Hox genes; retinoids; fibroblast growth factors; Wnt; dorsal–ventral; BMP (bone morphogenetic protein); Shh (Sonic hedgehog)

Figure 1. A‐P patterning of the CNS. The scheme is based on chick development. D, dorsal; V, ventral.
Figure 2. Examples of Hox expression in chick embryos revealed by in situ hybridization with ribonucleic acid (RNA) probes. Arrows indicate anterior‐most boundary of expression in the neural tube.


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Further Reading

Barresi MJF and Gilbert SF (2019) Chapter 11, Early development, Amphibians and fish; Chapter 12, Early development in vertebrates: Birds and Mammals. In: Developmental Biology, 12th edn. Sinauer Associates: Boston.

Slack J (2012) Essential Developmental Biology, 3rd edn. Wiley‐Blackwell.

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Itasaki, Nobue(May 2020) Vertebrate Embryo: Neural Patterning. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000737.pub4]