New Hope for Nerve Regeneration

    By Suzanne Vanderhoef

    Car accidents …sports injuries …even too much typing or texting can injure the peripheral nerves – those nerves that move out from the spinal cord and provide function to the arms, hands and leg.

    Until recently, there wasn’t much doctors could do to help. But that may be changing, thanks in part to these researchers at Washington University and their collaborators at Northwestern.

    “Unfortunately, no matter how common peripheral nerve damages are, we don’t have any medication, we don’t have any therapeutic intervention that can up-regulate nerve regeneration,” explains Dr. Zack Ray, Associate Professor of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgery at Washington University. “Now, that has changed in what we’ve learned in the past decades is that intra-operative stimulation at the time of repair can enhance nerve generation.”

    To do this, Dr. Ray and his team have developed a small, implantable, device –so far just tested in rats — that delivers electrical pulses to damaged peripheral nerves, helping those nerves re-generate and regrow.

    “This potentially has applications in all traumatic nerve injuries, but even more for those who have even more common compressive neuropathy, such as carpal tunnel: nerves compressed at the hand; or cubital tunnel: nerves compressed at the elbow,” says Ray. “Imagine any type of situation or scenario where the nerve has been compressed or has disfunction – potentially this would be useful.”

    The device is powered wirelessly by a transmitter outside the body that acts similar to a cell phone charging mat. After a week or so, it dissolves and harmlessly absorbs into the body.

    The study looked at what happens when researchers used the device to provide one hour of stimulation a day for three or six days. They found that three days of stimulation gave significantly better results than one day, and six days were better than three.

    “The nice thing is these devices can be tailored to deliver a specific dose or therapeutic intervention,” says Ray. “The devices we’re using were fabricated to deliver therapy for up to six days, but conceivably they could be fabricated to go beyond that and in some ways, it was a bit of an arbitrary timepoint to look at it six days What we don’t know is if nine days is better? Is twelve days going to further enhance that functional recovery?”

    So far, researchers have had great results in the lab. Ultimately, they hope it will work just as well in humans. The next step would be demonstrating this works in a large animal model with nerves that are more similar to humans. Those studies are underway.