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Neurol Res. 2008 Dec;30(10):999-1011. doi: 10.1179/174313208X362479.

Neuronal death after peripheral nerve injury and experimental strategies for neuroprotection.

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  • 1Blond-McIndoe Research Laboratories, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Research, The University of Manchester, Stopford Building, Room 3.102, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PT, UK.



Despite considerable microsurgical innovation in peripheral nerve repair, the outcome has improved little since the 1940s, reflecting surgical inability to adequately address the complex neurobiology of nerve injury and regeneration. Axotomy-induced neuronal death is potentially the most fundamental problem, and given recently published data, a review is timely.


Initial review of relevant doctoral theses from the University of UmeƄ, and Blond-McIndoe Research Laboratories, the University of Manchester, plus initial PubMed search including terms 'neuron death' and 'neuroprotection', subsequently expanded to relevant quoted articles.


Various factors related to patient (principally age) and injury (Sunderland grade, proximity to cell body and mechanism) determine the extent of neuronal death, the mechanism of which is reviewed. A considerable proportion of sensory neurons (particularly small cutaneous afferents) die after distal injury and death is more widespread after proximal injury. Motor neurons are susceptible to post-ganglionic plexus and spinal root level injury. Root avulsion causes the greatest cell death. The time course of neuronal death is fortuitously slow and mainly occurs by a process akin to apoptosis. A therapeutic window therefore exists, as do potential neuroprotective targets. Nerve repair is partly neuroprotective, but must be performed early. Exogenous neurotrophic factor administration (e.g. in tissue engineered conduits) is beneficial, but not practical for various reasons. In contrast, adjuvant neuroprotective pharmacotherapy is practical, and two clinically safe agents are reviewed. Acetyl-L-carnitine arrests sensory neuronal death and speeds up regeneration. N-acetyl-cysteine provides comparable sensory neuronal protection via mitochondrial preservation and protects motor neurons. Both agents are well characterized experimentally and highly effective even after clinically relevant delays between injury and treatment. Barriers to translational research are being addressed.


The future of peripheral nerve repair lies in modulating neurobiology at the time of injury, repair and during regeneration. Neuroprotection may be an essential component of that therapeutic package.

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