Remnant neuromuscular junctions in denervated muscles contribute to functional recovery in delayed peripheral nerve repair

Neural Regen Res. 2020 Apr;15(4):731-738. doi: 10.4103/1673-5374.266925.


Schwann cell proliferation in peripheral nerve injury (PNI) enhances axonal regeneration compared to central nerve injury. However, even in PNI, long-term nerve damage without repair induces degeneration of neuromuscular junctions (NMJs), and muscle atrophy results in irreversible dysfunction. The peripheral regeneration of motor axons depends on the duration of skeletal muscle denervation. To overcome this difficulty in nerve regeneration, detailed mechanisms should be determined for not only Schwann cells but also NMJ degeneration after PNI and regeneration after nerve repair. Here, we examined motor axon denervation in the tibialis anterior muscle after peroneal nerve transection in thy1-YFP mice and regeneration with nerve reconstruction using allografts. The number of NMJs in the tibialis anterior muscle was maintained up to 4 weeks and then decreased at 6 weeks after injury. In contrast, the number of Schwann cells showed a stepwise decline and then reached a plateau at 6 weeks after injury. For regeneration, we reconstructed the degenerated nerve with an allograft at 4 and 6 weeks after injury, and evaluated functional and histological outcomes for 10 to 12 weeks after grafting. A higher number of pretzel-shaped NMJs in the tibialis anterior muscle and better functional recovery were observed in mice with a 4-week delay in surgery than in those with a 6-week delay. Nerve repair within 4 weeks after PNI is necessary for successful recovery in mice. Prevention of synaptic acetylcholine receptor degeneration may play a key role in peripheral nerve regeneration. All animal experiments were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of Tokyo Medical and Dental University on 5 July 2017, 30 March 2018, and 15 May 2019 (A2017-311C, A2018-297A, and A2019-248A), respectively.

Keywords: Schwann cell; axon; nerve allograft; nerve regeneration; neurodegeneration; neuromuscular junction; peripheral nerve injury; skeletal muscle.