Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute scientists develop new technology to assess nerve regeneration

researchers at bench

Gregorio Valdez (left), an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, and William Dalkin, a fourth-year student in the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, are members of a research team that has developed a method for scientists to directly examine how damaged nerves regenerate and reconnect with muscles.

Numbness, tingling, and discomfort from peripheral nerve damage are facts of life for millions of Americans.

Now, investigators with the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, writing in the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JOVE), have described a way for scientists to directly examine how damaged nerves regenerate and reconnect with muscles. The work has been developed and applied in mice in an approach that in the long-term may inform new treatments for human patients.

An estimated 20 million Americans have medical conditions where the peripheral nervous system functions abnormally often resulting in inappropriate continual activation of the nerve fibers leading to sensations that can be painful or extremely disruptive to normal life.

The peripheral nerves serve as the conduits for information transfer between the brain and spinal cord and every other part of the body, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

“Our intention is to find ways to study and improve nerve and synapse regeneration,” said Gregorio Valdez, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “In people, whether peripheral nerve damage occurs during someone’s surgery, or because of injuries or illnesses, it is imperative that the nerves regrow and reconnect with targets in the skin or muscles in order for them to regain normal function.”

Peripheral nerves that stop growing after injury can cause severe pain and also compromise movements because nerves fail to reach or properly reconnect with the appropriate skeletal muscles, Valdez said.

Researchers developed the assessment technique out of necessity – they were studying the influence of circadian clock genes in regenerating neuromuscular junctions and needed a more reliable alternative, according to William Dalkin, a fourth-year student in the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine from Charlottesville, Virginia, and the first author of the study.

This nerve injury method involves a simple surgery and only five seconds of compression of the common fibular nerve as it passes over the lateral head of the gastrocnemius muscle tendon near the knee.

“We believe that this method will accelerate our understanding of the cellular and molecular changes involved in repairing neuromuscular junctions and other synapses,” said Dalkin, who studied neuroscience as an undergraduate at the College of William & Mary. “We want neurobiologists to have a reliable technique to examine muscle reinnervation and regeneration of neuromuscular junctions. We hope to provide scientists with opportunities to identify and test factors that act to repair injuries.”

Peripheral nerve disorders can arise from trauma, exposure to toxins, infections, and a range of diseases and disorders, including cancer, complications from both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, muscular dystrophy, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

Media contact

John Pastor, jdpastor@vt.edu

December 19, 2016
Roanoke