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Int Rev Neurobiol. 2013;108:137-71. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-410499-0.00006-X.

The pros and cons of growth factors and cytokines in peripheral axon regeneration.

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Division of Neuroanatomy, Department of Anatomy and Histology, Innsbruck Medical University, Innsbruck, Austria.


Injury to a peripheral nerve induces a complex cellular and molecular response required for successful axon regeneration. Proliferating Schwann cells organize into chains of cells bridging the lesion site, which is invaded by macrophages. Approximately half of the injured neuron population sends out axons that enter the glial guidance channels in response to secreted neurotrophic factors and neuropoietic cytokines. These lesion-associated polypeptides create an environment that is highly supportive for axon regrowth, particularly after acute injury, and ensure that the vast majority of regenerating axons are directed toward the distal nerve stump. Unfortunately, most neurotrophic factors and neuropoietic cytokines are also strong stimulators of axonal sprouting. Although some of the axonal branches will withdraw at later stages, the sprouting effect contributes to the misdirection of reinnervation that results in the lack of functional recovery observed in many patients with peripheral nerve injuries. Here, we critically review the role of neuronal growth factors and cytokines during axon regeneration in the peripheral nervous system. Their differential effects on axon elongation and sprouting were elucidated in various studies on intraneuronal signaling mechanisms following nerve lesion. The present data define a goal for future therapeutic strategies, namely, to selectively stimulate a Ras/Raf/ERK-mediated axon elongation program over an intrinsic PI3K-dependent axonal sprouting program in lesioned motor and sensory neurons. Instead of modulating growth factor or cytokine levels at the lesion site, targeting specific intraneuronal molecules, such as the negative feedback inhibitors of ERK signaling, has been shown to promote long-distance regeneration while avoiding sprouting of regenerating axons until they have reached their target areas.


Branching; Cytokine; Elongation; Growth factor; Injury; Lesion; Neuropeptide; Signaling; Sprouting

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