The field of medicine has made numerous advances in recent times, but one issue that remains to be solved is nerve damage. Can nerve damage be repaired? Researchers around the world are working to answer this question, and one of the most promising solutions may be a hydrogel that could be used to repair peripheral nerve damage.
What Is Nerve Damage?
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are more than 100 different types of nerve damage. Peripheral nerve damage, in particular, refers to damage to the peripheral nervous system, which consists of all nerves that branch off the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). The peripheral nervous system extends to many tissues and organs throughout the body and is responsible for transferring information to and from the central nervous system.
In addition to transmitting sensory information, peripheral nerves also enable voluntary movements and regulate involuntary body functions, such as increasing heart rate in response to fight-or-flight scenarios.
An estimated 20 million Americans have peripheral nerve damage, and this widespread problem has many different causes. For example, it’s estimated that up to 70% of people with diabetes have nerve damage. Other factors that can lead to peripheral nerve damage include illnesses, injuries, cancer treatments and birth trauma.
Traditional Nerve Repair Technologies
Unfortunately, nerve damage issues are often permanent. According to a recent University of Pittsburgh study via Science Daily, peripheral nerves can regrow up to a third of an inch on their own, but if the damaged section is longer than that, the nerve can’t find its target. This can cause the nerve to become knotted into a painful ball known as a neuroma. The study also points out that nerve transplants are complicated and require donor nerves from other parts of the body. In addition, motor nerve transplants usually only restore 40-60% of the original motor function.
According to the Mayo Clinic, one strategy for peripheral nerve regeneration and repair is vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). This therapy promotes angiogenesis (the development of new blood vessels) and neurogenesis (nervous tissue growth) which can give the nerves a better chance to regenerate.
To make up for the shortcomings of traditional nerve repair, several research groups are developing new solutions. Stem cell therapy could help, but the National Stem Cell Clinic notes that this method only works for certain types of nerve damage and that more research is needed in this area.
In some cases, an artificial approach may be best. The Pittsburgh study involved inserting a biodegradable tube to guide the damaged nerve as it grew. The tube was filled with growth-promoting protein that can facilitate regeneration of long sections of damaged nerves without the need to transplant stem cells or donor nerves. In animal experiments, the tube guide returned about 80% of fine motor control, but it took a year for the nerve to regrow.
On the other hand, an October 2020 study from China published in ACS Nano used a hydrogel to repair nerve damage in just two weeks. The study’s authors explained that, “as hydrogels are more similar to nerve tissue, functional hydrogels have become a promising candidate for bioelectronics.” For their study, the researchers developed a stretchy, conductive hydrogel with a 3D microporous network that allowed nerve cells to enter and adhere, which helped to restore lost tissue. They noted that the electricity-conducting properties of the material improved with light therapy, which is promising for future research.
Can Nerve Damage Be Repaired?
The nervous system is one of the most critical components of the human body, and nerve damage can pose challenges that may affect quality of life. Fortunately, some nerve damage can be repaired with available treatments, and for cases that cannot be resolved with current therapies, emerging solutions — such as the use of nanomaterials like hydrogel to create artificial nerve connections — may provide a way forward.