Several experiments have shown that mechanical forces significantly influence the initiation, growth, and retraction of neurites of cultured neurons. A similar role has long been suggested for mechanical forces in vivo, but this hypothesis has remained unverified due to the paucity of in vivo studies of neuronal mechanical behavior. In this study, we used high-resolution micromechanical force sensors to study the mechanical response of motor neurons in live Drosophila embryos. Our experiments showed that Drosophila neurons maintained a rest tension (1- 13 nN) and behaved like viscoelastic solids (i.e., with a linear force-deformation response followed by force relaxation to steady state) in response to sustained stretching. More importantly, when the tension was suddenly diminished by a release of the externally applied force, the neurons contracted and actively generated force to restore tension, sometimes to a value close to their rest tension. In addition, axons that were slackened by displacing the neuromuscular junction contracted and became taut in 10- 30 min. These observations are remarkably similar to results from in vitro studies and suggest that mechanical tension may also strongly influence neuronal behavior in vivo.
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