Neuronal differentiation is a fundamental event in the development of the nervous system as well as in the regeneration of damaged nervous tissue. The initiation and guidance of a neurite are accomplished by positive (permissive or attractive), negative (inhibitory or repulsive), or guiding (affecting the advance of the growth cone) signals from the extracellular space. The signals may arise from either the extracellular matrix (ECM) or the surface of other cells, or be diffusible secreted factors. Based on this classification, we briefly describe selected positive, negative, and guiding signaling cues focusing on the role of cell adhesion molecules (CAMs). CAMs not only regulate cell-cell and cell-ECM adhesion "mechanically," they also trigger intracellular signaling cascades launching neurite outgrowth. Here, we describe the structure, function, and signaling of three key CAMs found in the nervous system: N-cadherin and two Ig-CAMs, L1 and the neural cell adhesion molecule NCAM.
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