Researchers here produce faster nerve regrowth following injury via the use of electrical stimulation of tissue. This is an interesting companion piece to a recent paper that reported on the use of electrical stimulation to produce greater degrees of neurogenesis in the brain. Applying electromagnetic fields to the body with the goal of beneficially changing the behavior of cells is a poorly explored facet of medical technology, when compared to the effort put into pharmacology. In part this may be because it appears more challenging to achieve success and reliability of outcomes in research. The fine technical details of the methodology used appear to matter greatly: field character, strength, frequency, time and repetition of application, and so forth.

Researchers have found a treatment that increases the speed of nerve regeneration by three to five times, which may one day lead to much better outcomes for trauma surgery patients. Peripheral nerve injury occurs in about three per cent of trauma victims. The slow nature of nerve regeneration means that often muscles atrophy before the nerve has a chance to grow and reconnect. That’s where conditioning electrical stimulation (CES) comes in. The process involves electrically stimulating a nerve at the fairly low rate of 20 hertz for one hour. A week after the CES treatment, nerve surgery is done, and the nerves grow back three to five times faster than if the surgery was done without CES.

In their latest work on CES, researchers examined animal models with foot drop, a common injury that affects patients’ quality of life by impeding their ability to walk normally. Previously, the only treatments for foot drop were orthotics, that affect a patient’s gait, or surgery. Researchers performed a distal nerve transfer in which a nerve near the damaged one was electrically stimulated, then a week later a branch of the nerve was cut and placed near the target of the non-functioning nerve. The newly transferred nerve would then be primed and ready to regrow, at a much faster rate, into the muscles that lift the foot. Researchers hopes to bring the information gained from examining nerve transfers in the leg – a difficult body part for nerve regrowth due to the vast area the nerve must cover – to clinical trials within the next year or two.