The functional outcome after peripheral nerve repair is often unpredictable for many reasons, e.g., the severity of neuronal death and scarring. Axonal degeneration significantly affects outcomes. Post-injury axonal degeneration in peripheral nerves is accompanied by myelin degradation initiated by Schwann cells (SCs), which activate autophagy, a ubiquitous cytoprotective process essential for degrading and recycling cellular constituents. Scar formation occurs concomitantly with nerve insult and axonal degeneration. The association between SC autophagy and the mechanisms of nerve scar formation is still unknown. A rat model of peripheral nerve lesions induced by sciatic nerve transection injuries was used to examine the function of autophagy in fibrosis reduction during the early phase of nerve repair. Rats were treated with rapamycin (autophagy inducer) or 3-methyladenine (autophagy inhibitor). One week after the nerve damage, fibrosis was potently inhibited in rapamycin-treated rats and, based on gait analysis, yielded a better functional outcome. Immunohistochemistry showed that the autophagic activity of SCs and the accumulation of neurofilaments were upregulated in rapamycin-treated rats. A deficiency of SC autophagic activity might be an early event in nerve scar formation, and modulating autophagy might be a powerful pharmacological approach for improving functional outcomes.
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