How injured nerves grow themselves back

September 27, 2010

Unlike nerves of the spinal cord, the peripheral nerves that connect our limbs and organs to the central nervous system have an astonishing ability to regenerate themselves after injury. Now, a new report in the October 1st issue of Cell offers new insight into how that healing process works.

"We know a lot about how various cell types differentiate during development, but after a serious injury like an , nerves must re-grow," said Allison Lloyd of University College London. "They need a new mechanism to do that because the developmental signals aren't there."

That kind of regrowth isn't easy to pull off. Peripheral nerves are long cells; their nucleus is in the and the axons that extend from them and relay nerve messages can reach all the way down a leg. "When a nerve gets cut, all the axons downstream degenerate," Lloyd said. Regrowth requires that the two ends somehow find their way back to each other through damaged tissue.

Scientists knew that Schwann cells were important to that process. Those cells are found wrapped around axons, where under normal circumstances they are rather "quiet" cells. All of that changes when an injury occurs; those Schwann cells de-differentiate back to a stem-cell-like state and play an important role in bridging the gap to repair damaged neurons.

"Schwann cells could sit on a nerve for years and then, at any point, switch states," Lloyd said. "They are quite unusual cells." (There are other examples of cells that can return to a stem-cell-like state, she said. For instance, cells in the liver and the endothelial cells that line .)

But, the new study shows, the Schwann cells need help to repair the nerves properly. That help comes from a well-studied cell type known to play a role in : fibroblasts.

"This is a new role for fibroblasts," Lloyd said, an exciting find given that the cells are the type that grows when you place animal tissue in cell culture and have been very well studied as a result. "There is lots known about them, and they are always present at wounds. This shows that they act in a completely new way."

The fibroblasts send a signal to the Schwann cells, causing them to sort themselves into clumps, or cords, that make their way out of the nerve stump as a group. Those cords guide the regrowth of axons across the wound. Lloyd's team found that the response to the so-called ephrin-B signal issued by the fibroblasts depends on a factor called Sox2, best known for its central role in embryonic stem cells. Sox2 is also one of a handful of ingredients that can help reprogram adult cells to behave like embryonic stem cells.

Without the ephrin-B signal, Schwann cells fail to migrate in an organized fashion and the don't grow back properly.

Lloyd said the new findings might lead to ways to improve the repair of , noting that the natural process isn't all that efficient. "It's not perfect, but if a hand is cut off and sewn back on, you can get some movement," Lloyd said. Her team is actively exploring ways to improve upon the natural nerve-healing mechanism now.

The researchers also have plans to investigate whether similar mechanisms might be involved in the movement and spread of cancers of the peripheral nervous system. "We don't know yet, but it wouldn't be surprising if this is relevant to the movement of other ," Lloyd said.

Explore further: New research reveals critical knowledge about the nervous system

Related Stories

Turning back the clock for Schwann cells

May 19, 2008

Myelin-making Schwann cells have an ability every aging Hollywood star would envy: they can become young again. According to a study appearing in the May 19 issue of the Journal of Cell Biology, David B. Parkinson (University ...

Study: Stem cells report olfactory nerves

April 30, 2007

U.S. researchers identified a "backup supply" of stem cells that can repair the most severely damaged nerves responsible for human olfactory sense.

Bone marrow cells can heal nerves in diabetes model

February 4, 2009

Transplanting cells that replenish blood vessels can also restore nerve function in an animal model of diabetic neuropathy, Emory researchers have found. The results are described online this week in the journal Circulation.

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Cow embryos reveal new type of chromosome chimera

May 27, 2016

I've often wondered what happens between the time an egg is fertilized and the time the ball of cells that it becomes nestles into the uterine lining. It's a period that we know very little about, a black box of developmental ...

Shaving time to test antidotes for nerve agents

February 29, 2016

Imagine you wanted to know how much energy it took to bike up a mountain, but couldn't finish the ride to the peak yourself. So, to get the total energy required, you and a team of friends strap energy meters to your bikes ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Sep 27, 2010
Is this applicable to healing in the CNS?
not rated yet Sep 27, 2010
will it give me the feeling back in my fingertip i cut 3/4 of the way off (it DID actually heal back together, yet I have no feeling in that finger tip at all above the scar)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.