The nervous system functions as the body’s electrical system, a collection of specialized cells that transmit signals between different parts of the body. But injuries and certain degenerative diseases – including Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and multiple sclerosis – can interrupt that communication, posing a challenge for scientists seeking ways to return the body’s nervous system to healthy function.
Mohammad Reza Abidian, associate professor of biomedical engineering, said surgical repairs can sometimes bridge small gaps between damaged nerves – typically gaps of less than one centimeter – but that isn’t an option for more severely damaged nerves. Instead, scientists are seeking to spur nerve regeneration in ways that can mend the breech.
“Nature can regulate nerve regeneration, but fully functional recovery may require additional steps,” he said. “We want to provide cues for the axons to regenerate along specific pathways.”
The nervous system is made up of the central nervous system – the brain and spinal cord – and the peripheral nervous system, which communicates with the central nervous system through axons, transmitting instructions from the brain to the arms and legs, for example. Abidian’s work under this grant will focus on directing axons to regenerate along specific pathways.
Axons search out signals from their physiological environment to determine which direction to grow, and Abidian said scientists know that those signals can be disrupted by illness or injury. To overcome that disruption, researchers need to understand how shifts in the concentration of chemicals or other physical factors, known as the gradient, affect axonal growth, as well as how that gradient should be shaped. Abidian and his lab will develop a technology platform that will allow them to test various gradient shapes, individually and in combination, and then do testing in the lab and in animal studies to determine how those changes affect axonal regeneration.
The work is a continuation of research he began in graduate school; he started working with the peripheral nervous system during a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan.
His expertise includes developing implantable micro and nanodevices that can safely interact with the nervous system, and while his research group doesn’t target specific diseases, researchers there create materials and devices to solve specific neurological problems.
Abidian said the work in axonal regeneration would be useful for repairing the damage caused by neurodegenerative diseases or injuries, but it also has applications for the field of neural prosthetics, devices that can artificially restore lost function.