Poor functional recovery after peripheral nerve injury has been generally attributed to inability of denervated muscles to accept reinnervation and recover from denervation atrophy. However, deterioration of the Schwann cell environment may play a more vital role. This study was undertaken to evaluate the effects of chronic denervation on the capacity of Schwann cells in the distal nerve stump to support axonal regeneration and to remyelinate regenerated axons. We used a delayed cross-suture anastomosis technique in which the common peroneal (CP) nerve in the rat was denervated for 0-24 weeks before cross-suture of the freshly axotomized tibial (TIB) and chronically denervated CP nerve stumps. Motor neurons were backlabeled with either fluoro-ruby or fluorogold 12 months later, to identify and count TIB motor neurons that regenerated axons into chronically denervated CP nerve stumps. Number, size, and myelination of regenerated sensory and motor axons were determined using light and electron microscopy. We found that short-term denervation of < or =4 weeks did not affect axonal regeneration but more prolonged denervation profoundly reduced the numbers of backlabeled motor neurons and axons in the distal nerve stump. Yet, atrophic Schwann cells retained their capacity to remyelinate regenerated axons. In fact, the axons were larger and well myelinated by long-term chronically denervated Schwann cells. These findings demonstrate a progressive inability of chronically denervated Schwann cells to support axonal regeneration and yet a sustained capacity to remyelinate the axons which do regenerate. Thus, axonal interaction can effectively switch the nonmyelinating phenotype of atrophic Schwann cells back into the myelinating phenotype.
Copyright 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.