Observations of nerve axons in vivo reveal that electrical activity increases the number and speed of transported mitochondria, showing how sudden increases in energy demand may be satisfied.
Matching energy supply and demand is critical in the bioenergetic homeostasis of all cells. This is a special problem in neurons where high levels of energy expenditure may occur at sites remote from the cell body, given the remarkable length of axons and enormous variability of impulse activity over time. Positioning mitochondria at areas with high energy requirements is an essential solution to this problem, but it is not known how this is related to impulse conduction in vivo. Therefore, to study mitochondrial trafficking along resting and electrically active adult axons in vivo, confocal imaging of saphenous nerves in anaesthetised mice was combined with electrical and pharmacological stimulation of myelinated and unmyelinated axons, respectively. We show that low frequency activity induced by electrical stimulation significantly increases anterograde and retrograde mitochondrial traffic in comparison with silent axons. Higher frequency conduction within a physiological range (50 Hz) dramatically further increased anterograde, but not retrograde, mitochondrial traffic, by rapidly increasing the number of mobile mitochondria and gradually increasing their velocity. Similarly, topical application of capsaicin to skin innervated by the saphenous nerve increased mitochondrial traffic in both myelinated and unmyelinated axons. In addition, stationary mitochondria in axons conducting at higher frequency become shorter, thus supplying additional mitochondria to the trafficking population, presumably through enhanced fission. Mitochondria recruited to the mobile population do not accumulate near Nodes of Ranvier, but continue to travel anterogradely. This pattern of mitochondrial redistribution suggests that the peripheral terminals of sensory axons represent sites of particularly high metabolic demand during physiological high frequency conduction. As the majority of mitochondrial biogenesis occurs at the cell body, increased anterograde mitochondrial traffic may represent a mechanism that ensures a uniform increase in mitochondrial density along the length of axons during high impulse load, supporting the increased metabolic demand imposed by sustained conduction.
As mitochondria are the main power source for most cells, their correct localization is vital for cellular homeostasis. The morphological and functional complexity of neurons, and the unpredictability of energy demand resulting from sustained impulse activity, means that correct mitochondrial function and location is particularly important for these cells. However, it is unclear how mitochondrial transport responds to the wide range of physiological conduction frequencies experienced by an intact nervous system. Here we image mitochondria moving along mouse saphenous nerve axons in vivo and observe the effects of sustained trains of impulses, evoked either by electrical stimulation of myelinated axons at physiological frequencies (1 and 50 Hz), or chemical stimulation (cutaneous capsaicin) in unmyelinated axons. We find that the number and speed of mitochondria moving towards the peripheral sensory terminals dramatically increases in active axons. The increased numbers of mobile mitochondria seem to originate from “pinched off” segments of stationary mitochondria (mitochondrial fission), and from recruitment of small stationary mitochondria. The transported mitochondria appear to accumulate in sensory nerve terminals in the skin. This study suggests that mitochondrial fission is involved in rapidly supplying mobile mitochondria to aid their re-distribution to regions of increased metabolic demand along axons.