Nerve damage is one of the most frustrating human conditions, whether it comes from injury or illness. Because of their complex nature, nerve systems are nearly impossible to regrow or repair, especially after serious damage. This is devastating for so many people who have lost feeling and function in limbs; it is difficult to have hope when you are told your condition is permanent.
There may be some good news on the horizon, however. A research team comprised of scientists from the University of Minnesota, Virginia Tech University, the University of Maryland, Princeton University, and Johns Hopkins University has developed what could be a very promising treatment.
Using a 3-D printer, they have been able to scan a rat’s sciatic nerve and print a silicone “guide” with biochemical properties. This guide can actually train the body to regenerate nerves and repair damaged connections. The guide was effective in repairing both sensory and motor nerve connections. The results were so dramatic, that the rats implanted with the guide were actually walking again after 10-12 weeks.
The device can be created in a matter of hours, but once implanted, the body requires several weeks to allow the nerves to regrow. During the regrowth process, the patient would need intense physical therapy in order to train the muscles to begin working again.
While simpler nerve systems have shown the potential for regrowth, this is really the first time anyone has attempted to regrow a complex nerve like the sciatic nerve, which houses both sensory and motor components. This could be a huge breakthrough for so many people suffering from injuries and degenerative conditions. There are still many phases of testing before this treatment can become a reality, but the research team is extremely optimistic.