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Influence of aging on peripheral nerve function and regeneration

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Aging deeply influences several morphologic and functional features of the peripheral nervous system (PNS). Morphologic studies have reported a loss of myelinated and unmyelinated nerve fibers in elderly subjects, and several abnormalities involving myelinated fibers, such as demyelination, remyelination and myelin balloon figures. The deterioration of myelin sheaths during aging may be due to a decrease in the expression of the major myelin proteins (P0, PMP22, MBP). Axonal atrophy, frequently seen in aged nerves, may be explained by a reduction in the expression and axonal transport of cytoskeletal proteins in the peripheral nerve. Aging also affects functional and electrophysiologic properties of the PNS, including a decline in nerve conduction velocity, muscle strength, sensory discrimination, autonomic responses, and endoneurial blood flow. The age-related decline in nerve regeneration after injury may be attributed to changes in neuronal, axonal, Schwann cell and macrophage responses. After injury, Wallerian degeneration is delayed in aged animals, with myelin remnants accumulated in the macrophages being larger than in young animals. The interaction between Schwann cells and regenerative axons takes longer, and the amount of trophic and tropic factors secreted by reactive Schwann cells and target organs are lower in older subjects than they are in younger subjects. The rate of axonal regeneration becomes slower and the density of regenerating axons decrease in aged animals. Aging also determines a reduction in terminal and collateral sprouting of regenerated fibers, further limiting the capabilities for target reinnervation and functional restitution. These age-related changes are not linearly progressive with age; the capabilities for axonal regeneration and reinnervation are maintained throughout life, but tend to be delayed and less effective with aging.
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Keywords: aging; nerve fibers; nerve regeneration; peripheral nerve; reinnervation; review

Document Type: Review Article

Affiliations: Neuroplasticity Group, Department of Cell Biology, Physiology and Immunology, Faculty of Medicine,Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Bellaterra, Spain

Publication date: December 1, 2000

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