In this review, we describe the different intermediate filament (IF) proteins, their assembly into IFs, the functions of IFs and their relation to disease with a particular emphasis on the intermediate filaments expressed in the nervous system. In the mammalian nervous system, seven intermediate filament proteins are known to be expressed in neurons or neuroblasts. These include the three neurofilament triplet proteins, which are present in both central and peripheral neurons; α-internexin, which is the first neuronal intermediate filament protein expressed in the developing mammalian nervous system and present primarily in CNS neurons in the adult nervous system; peripherin, which is most abundant in the PNS; vimentin, which is expressed in neuronal progenitor cells along with nestin, as well as in a few adult neurons. In contrast to these neuron-specific IF proteins, the glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) is glial specific and expressed in mature astrocytes. Vimentin and nestin are also expressed in glial progenitor cells and vimentin is expressed along with GFAP in some mature astrocytes. As a whole, the expression of IF proteins is tissue specific and developmentally regulated. As a result, IF proteins are good markers for determining the cell origin and differentiation status of tumor cells. For example, peripherin is expressed in neuroblastomas, GFAP in astrocytomas and neurofilaments in tumors of neuronal origin. However, tumor cells may express IF patterns which are irrelevant to their cell origin. Therefore, one has to be very careful in using IF patterns as sole indicators of cell origin and differentiation status of tumors.
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