Researchers have gained new insight into how cells that insulate the nerve cells in the peripheral nervous system, Schwann cells, protect and repair damage caused by disease and trauma.

The researchers state that their findings will help in the development of future treatments for the repair and improvement of damage to the peripheral nervous system.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Exeter, together with colleagues from Rutgers University, Newark, and University College London, is published in the journal Neuroscience.

The peripheral nervous system (PNS) consists of all the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. The main function of the PNS is to connect the central nervous system to the limbs and organs, thus allowing us to feel the sun on our face and motor information, that allows us to move.

However, the PNS can be damaged through trauma and can occur in individuals with common inherited conditions, such as Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease, and in diabetic neuropathy – which almost half of individuals with diabetes suffer from.

Symptoms include:

  • Losing sensation in the hands and feet
  • Bladder control problems
  • Digestion problems
  • Sexual function problems
  • Problems with blood pressure regulation

Schwann cells provide the myelin sheath (insulation) for the nerve cells that transmit electrical signals to and form the spinal cord. The Schwann cells are able to transform back to an immature ‘repair’ cell due to their plasticity, thus allowing them to repair damage to the PNS. Although these cells are able to repair damage well, incomplete repair, perhaps after the severance of a nerve, may result in pain and long-term loss of function.

Although these cells are able to demyelinate, this makes them vulnerable to diseases, such as CMT, which affects 1 in 2,500 people. Variations in different CMT genes can cause cycles of repair and re-insulation (re-myelination). This can cause both Schwann cells and nerve cells to die as well as long-term damage. At present, there is no treatment for CMT and those with the disease suffer from increased sensory and motor problems which could leave them permanently disabled.

According to the researchers, findings from this study will lead to therapies to improve damage from severe trauma and stop the damage caused by CMT. Furthermore, they note that their may be the potential to improve repair in cases of diabetic neuropathy.

Professor David Parkinson, Associate Professor in Neuroscience, Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Exeter, explained:

“The findings of our research are excited because we have pinpointed and are understanding the mechanism by which our bodies can repair damage to the peripheral nervous system. With further investigation, this could well lead to therapies to repair nerve damage from trauma and mitigate the damage which related to common illnesses, such as CMT.”

Written By Grace Rattue