UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Building a tunnel made up of both hard and soft materials to guide the reconnection of severed nerve endings may be the first step toward helping patients who have suffered extensive nerve trauma regain feeling and movement, according to a team of biomedical engineers.
"Nerve injury in both central nervous system and peripheral nervous system is a major health problem," said Mohammad Reza Abidian, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, Penn State. "According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, there are approximately 290,000 individuals in the US who suffer from spinal cord injuries with about 12,000 new injuries occurring each year."
Spontaneous nerve regeneration is limited to small lesions within the injured peripheral nerve system and is actively suppressed within central nervous system. When a nerve in the peripheral nervous system is cut slightly, nerve endings can regenerate and reconnect. However, if the distance between the two endings is too far, the growth can go off course and fail to connect.
The researchers, who published their results in the current issue of Advanced Healthcare Materials, developed a novel hybrid conduit that consisted of a soft material, called a hydrogel, as an external wall along with an internal wall made of an electrically-active conducting polymer to serve as a tunnel that guides the regrowth and reconnection of the severed nerve endings.
Abidian said that the method could offer advantages over current surgeries that are used to reconnect severed nerves.
"Autografts are currently the gold standard for bridging nerve gaps," said Abidian. "This is an operation that takes the nerve from another portion of the body -- for instance -- from a tendon, and then it is grafted onto the injured nerve."
However, the operation can be painful and there are often mismatches in size between the severed nerve endings and the new grafted portion of t
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