Theoretical analysis of gradient detection by growth cones

Geoffrey J. Goodhill, Jeffrey S. Urbach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


Gradients of diffusible and substrate-bound molecules play an important role in guiding axons to appropriate targets in the developing nervous system. Although some of the molecules involved have recently been identified, little is known about the physical mechanisms by which growth cones sense gradients. This article applies the seminal Berg and Purcell (1977) model of gradient sensing to this problem. The model provides estimates for the statistical fluctuations in the measurement of concentration by a small sensing device. By assuming that gradient detection consists of the comparison of concentrations at two spatially or temporally separated points, the model therefore provides an estimate for the steepness of gradient that can be detected as a function of physiological parameters. The model makes the following specific predictions. (a) It is more likely that growth cones use a spatial rather than temporal sensing strategy. (b) Growth cone sensitivity increases with the concentration of ligand, the speed of ligand diffusion, the size of the growth cone, and the time over which it averages the gradient signal. (c) The minimum detectable gradient steepness for growth cones is roughly in the range 1-10%. (d) This value varies depending on whether a bound or freely diffusing ligand is being sensed, and on whether the sensing occurs in three or two dimensions. The model also makes predictions concerning the role of filopodia in gradient detection.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)230-241
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neurobiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1999


  • Axon guidance
  • Chemotropism
  • Gradients
  • Growth cone
  • Theoretical model


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