Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 186, Issue 2, pp 315–323 | Cite as

Survival and regeneration of cutaneous and muscular afferent neurons after peripheral nerve injury in adult rats

  • Dag Welin
  • Liudmila N. Novikova
  • Mikael Wiberg
  • Jan-Olof Kellerth
  • Lev N. Novikov
Research Article


Peripheral nerve injury induces the retrograde degeneration of dorsal root ganglion (DRG) cells, which affects predominantly the small-diameter cutaneous afferent neurons. This study compares the time-course of retrograde cell death in cutaneous and muscular DRG cells after peripheral nerve transection as well as neuronal survival and axonal regeneration after primary repair or nerve grafting. For comparison, spinal motoneurons were also included in the study. Sural and medial gastrocnemius DRG neurons were retrogradely labeled with the fluorescent tracers Fast Blue (FB) or Fluoro-Gold (FG) from the homonymous transected nerves. Survival of labeled sural and gastrocnemius DRG cells was assessed at 3 days and 1–24 weeks after axotomy. To evaluate axonal regeneration, the sciatic nerve was transected proximally at 1 week after FB-labeling of the sural and medial gastrocnemius nerves and immediately reconstructed using primary repair or autologous nerve grafting. Twelve weeks later, the fluorescent tracer Fluoro-Ruby (FR) was applied 10 mm distal to the sciatic lesion in order to double-label sural and gastrocnemius neurons that had regenerated across the repair site. Counts of labeled gastrocnemius DRG neurons did not reveal any significant retrograde cell death after nerve transection. In contrast, sural axotomy induced a delayed loss of sural DRG cells, which amounted to 22% at 4 weeks and 43–48% at 8–24 weeks postoperatively. Proximal transection of the sciatic nerve at 1 week after injury to the sural or gastrocnemius nerves neither further increased retrograde DRG degeneration, nor did it affect survival of sural or gastrocnemius motoneurons. Primary repair or peripheral nerve grafting supported regeneration of 53–60% of the spinal motoneurons and 47–49% of the muscular DRG neurons at 13 weeks postoperatively. In the cutaneous DRG neurons, primary repair or peripheral nerve grafting increased survival by 19–30% and promoted regeneration of 46–66% of the cells. The present results suggest that cutaneous DRG neurons are more sensitive to peripheral nerve injury than muscular DRG cells, but that their regenerative capacity does not differ from that of the latter cells. However, the retrograde loss of cutaneous DRG cells taking place despite immediate nerve repair would still limit the recovery of cutaneous sensory functions.


Dorsal root ganglion Motor neuron Axonal reaction Peripheral nerve graft Nerve regeneration 



This study was supported by the Swedish Medical Research Council (grant number 2005–5892), Umeå University, Hjärnfonden, Åke Wibergs Stiftelse, Anna-Stina och John Mattsons Minnesstiftelse för sonen Johan, Gunvor and Josef Anér’s Foundation and the County of Västerbotten. We thank Mrs. G. Folkesson and Mrs. G. Hällström for technical assistance.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dag Welin
    • 1
    • 2
  • Liudmila N. Novikova
    • 1
  • Mikael Wiberg
    • 1
    • 2
  • Jan-Olof Kellerth
    • 1
  • Lev N. Novikov
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Integrative Medical Biology, Section of AnatomyUmeå UniversityUmeåSweden
  2. 2.Department of Surgical and Perioperative Science, Section of Hand and Plastic SurgeryUmeå UniversityUmeåSweden

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