Neuroprotection and axonal regeneration after peripheral nerve injury
Abstract: Following microsurgical reconstruction of injured peripheral nerves, severed axons are able to undergo spontaneous regeneration. However, the functional result is always unsatisfactory with poor sensory recovery and reduced motor function. One contributing factor is the retrograde neuronal death, which occurs in the dorsal root ganglia (DRG) and in the spinal cord. An additional clinical problem is the loss of nerve tissue that often occurs in the trauma zone and which requires “bridges” to reconnect separated nerve ends. The present thesis investigates the extent of retrograde degeneration in spinal motoneurons and cutaneous and muscular afferent DRG neurons after permanent axotomy and following treatment with N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC). In addition, it examines the survival and growth-promoting effects of nerve reconstructions performed by primary repair and peripheral nerve grafting in combination with NAC treatment.In adult rats, cutaneous sural and muscular medial gastrocnemius DRG neurons and spinal motoneurons were retrogradely labeled with fluorescent tracers from the homonymous transected nerves. Survival of labeled neurons was assessed at different time points after nerve transection, ventral root avulsion and ventral rhizotomy. Axonal regeneration was evaluated using fluorescent tracers after sciatic axotomy and immediate nerve repair. Intraperitoneal or intrathecal treatment with NAC was initiated immediately after nerve injury or was delayed for 1-2 weeks.Counts of labeled gastrocnemius DRG neurons did not reveal any significant retrograde cell death after nerve transection. Sural axotomy induced a delayed loss of DRG cells, which amounted to 43- 48% at 8-24 weeks postoperatively. Proximal transection of the sciatic nerve at 1 week after initial axonal injury did not further increase retrograde DRG degeneration, nor did it affect survival of corresponding motoneurons. In contrast, rhizotomy and ventral root avulsion induced marked 26- 53% cell loss among spinal motoneurons. Primary repair or peripheral nerve grafting supported regeneration of 53-60% of the motoneurons and 47-49% of the muscular gastrocnemius DRG neurons at 13 weeks postoperatively. For the cutaneous sural DRG neurons, primary repair or peripheral nerve grafting increased survival by 19-30% and promoted regeneration of 46-66% of the cells. Regenerating sural and medial gastrocnemius DRG neurons upregulate transcription of peripherin and activating transcription factor 3. The gene expression of the structural neurofilament proteins of high molecular weight was significantly downregulated following injury in both regenerating and non-regenerating sensory neurons. Treatment with NAC was neuroprotective for spinal motoneurons after ventral rhizotomy and avulsion, and sural DRG neurons after sciatic nerve injury. However, combined treatment with nerve graft and NAC had significant additive effect on neuronal survival and also increased the number of sensory neurons regenerating across the graft. In contrast, NAC treatment neither affected the number of regenerating motoneurons nor the number of myelinated axons in the nerve graft and in the distal nerve stump.In summary, the present results demonstrate that cutaneous sural sensory neurons are more sensitive to peripheral nerve injury than muscular gastrocnemius DRG cells. Moreover, the retrograde loss of cutaneous DRG cells taking place despite immediate nerve repair would still limit recovery of cutaneous sensory functions. Experimental data also show that NAC provides a highly significant degree of neuroprotection in animal models of adult nerve injury and could be combined with nerve grafting to further attenuate retrograde neuronal death and to promote functional regeneration.
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