Neural plasticity after peripheral nerve injury and regeneration

Prog Neurobiol. 2007 Jul;82(4):163-201. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2007.06.005. Epub 2007 Jun 22.


Injuries to the peripheral nerves result in partial or total loss of motor, sensory and autonomic functions conveyed by the lesioned nerves to the denervated segments of the body, due to the interruption of axons continuity, degeneration of nerve fibers distal to the lesion and eventual death of axotomized neurons. Injuries to the peripheral nervous system may thus result in considerable disability. After axotomy, neuronal phenotype switches from a transmitter to a regenerative state, inducing the down- and up-regulation of numerous cellular components as well as the synthesis de novo of some molecules normally not expressed in adult neurons. These changes in gene expression activate and regulate the pathways responsible for neuronal survival and axonal regeneration. Functional deficits caused by nerve injuries can be compensated by three neural mechanisms: the reinnervation of denervated targets by regeneration of injured axons, the reinnervation by collateral branching of undamaged axons, and the remodeling of nervous system circuitry related to the lost functions. Plasticity of central connections may compensate functionally for the lack of specificity in target reinnervation; plasticity in human has, however, limited effects on disturbed sensory localization or fine motor control after injuries, and may even result in maladaptive changes, such as neuropathic pain, hyperreflexia and dystonia. Recent research has uncovered that peripheral nerve injuries induce a concurrent cascade of events, at the systemic, cellular and molecular levels, initiated by the nerve injury and progressing throughout plastic changes at the spinal cord, brainstem relay nuclei, thalamus and brain cortex. Mechanisms for these changes are ubiquitous in central substrates and include neurochemical changes, functional alterations of excitatory and inhibitory connections, atrophy and degeneration of normal substrates, sprouting of new connections, and reorganization of somatosensory and motor maps. An important direction for ongoing research is the development of therapeutic strategies that enhance axonal regeneration, promote selective target reinnervation, but are also able to modulate central nervous system reorganization, amplifying those positive adaptive changes that help to improve functional recovery but also diminishing undesirable consequences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Nerve Regeneration / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / pathology*
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology*