In new research colleagues from the U-M Medical School, VAAAHS and the University of California, San Francisco report success in developing polymer nanofiber technologies for understanding how nerves form, why they don’t reconnect after injury, and what can be done to prevent or slow damage.

Using polymer nanofibers thinner than human hairs as scaffolds, researchers coaxed a particular type of brain cell to wrap around fibers that mimic the shape and size of nerves found in the body.

They’ve even managed to encourage the process of myelination – the formation of a protective coating that guards larger nerve fibers from damage. They began to see multiple concentric layers of the protective substance called myelin start to form, just as they do in the body.

The research involves oligodendrocytes, which are the supporting actors to neurons -- the “stars” of the central nervous system. Without oligodendrocytes, central nervous system neurons can’t effectively transmit the electrical signals that control everything from muscle movement to brain function.

Oligodendrocytes are the type of cells typically affected by multiple sclerosis, and loss of myelin is a hallmark of that debilitating disease. 

The researchers have also determined the optimum diameter for the nanofibers to support this process – giving important new clues to answer the question of why some nerves are myelinated and some aren’t.

The researchers used polystyrene, a common plastic, to make fibers through a technique called electrospinnning. They discovered new techniques to optimize how fibers made from poly-L-lactide, a biodegradable polymer, can be better aligned to resemble neurons and to guide regenerating nerve cells. They’re also working to determine the factors that make oligodendrocytes attach to the long narrow axons of neurons, and perhaps to start forming myelin sheaths too.

By attaching particular molecules to the nanofibers, the colleagues hope to learn more about what makes this process work -- and what makes it go awry, as in diseases caused by poor nerve development.

Toward creating new nerves, the lab has found that stem cells are more likely to develop into neurons when they are grown on aligned nanofibers. They eventually hope to use this approach to build new nerves from stem cells and direct their connections to undamaged parts of the brain and to muscle.

Eventually, perhaps nerves could be grown along nanofibers in a lab setting and then transferred to patients’ bodies, where the fiber would safely degrade.

This story is reprinted from material from
University of Michigan, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.