After sixty years, a theory which said that nerve signals are sent throughout the body at different speeds as electrical impulses, has been proven true in a recent study.

A team from the University of Edinburgh analyzed how these signals are transmitted through nerve fibers, which allows our body to move and identify senses, including smell and touch.

This research, published in Current Biology and funded by the Wellcome Trust, confirms the idea which initially came from Nobel laureate Sir Andrew Huxley.

It has been well known that an insulating layer called myelin, which encircles nerve fibers, is significant to the process of identifying how fast the signals are sent.

Gaps, known as nodes, interrupt the insulating myelin at consistent intervals along the nerve.

The experts have demonstrated through their research that nerve fibers send signals down the nerves faster when the distance between nodes is longer.

Sir Andrew Huxley first developed the idea that the distance between the gaps may depend on how fast the electrical signals are. His research on the nervous system won him the Nobel Prize in 1963. Unfortunately, he passed away earlier this year.

The authors hope that this finding will help individuals understand what will happen to them if they have nerve damage, while also providing knowledge on how nerves form before and after birth.

Professor Peter Brophy, Director of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Neuroregeneration, explained:

“The study gives us greater insight into how the central and peripheral nervous systems work and what happens after nerves become injured. We know that peripheral nerves have the capacity to repair, but shorter lengths of insulation around the nerve fibres after repair affect the speed with which impulses are sent around the body.”

The speed at which nerve impulses were sent at reached a peak when the myelin reached a particular length, the team discovered.

The research, which was conducted in mice, also provided evidence that a protein named periaxin is responsible for controlling the length of myelin layers around nerve fibers.

Written by Sarah Glynn