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Nerve regeneration to be discussed at Given Institute

Aspen Times Staff Report

Researchers aren’t quite sure how a nerve can heal itself, but they’re finding new ways to help that miraculous healing process along, both with new surgical techniques and drug treatment.

On Tuesday, A. Lee Osterman, M.D., will speak on “The Boundless Potential of Peripheral Nerve Regeneration” as part of the Given Institute’s summer public lecture series. The free lecture will take place at 5:30 p.m. at the Institute, located at 100 E. Francis St., Aspen.

Osterman is a surgeon and director of the Philadelphia Hand Center and Fellowship Program. He will talk about the latest breakthroughs in microvascular surgery and the broader implications for nerve regeneration. He will also talk about new treatments for injuries such as cut nerves, and will focus on carpal-tunnel syndrome, the most common peripheral nervous system disorder, affecting 3 percent of the population.

Osterman will begin by describing the inner workings of the peripheral nervous system, which branches off from the spinal cord’s central nervous system, reaching down our arms and legs to feel pain, sense pressure and direct body movements.

While nerve cells in the spinal cord can’t regenerate themselves, nerves in the peripheral nervous system can heal themselves, at least partially – and researchers are finding way to help the process along.

Incredibly, the DNA of some peripheral nerve cells is located just off the spinal cord, while the rest of the same cell can stretch all the way down to a fingertip. Osterman said the genetic material in peripheral nerve cells can produce regenerative material and literally send it all the way from the spinal cord region to the site of the injury.

“It’s equivalent to standing at the top of Independence Pass and directing traffic at Main and Mill,” said Osterman, a longtime visitor to Aspen. “The peripheral nervous system is like the branches of a tree.”

Nerve impulses travel at 60 meters per second, like electricity through a wire. Nerve cells are coated with something called a myelin sheath made of “Schwann” cells, which help conduct the nerve impulse. When pressure is put on the myelin sheath, the coating can be lost, and the nerves “short-circuit,” according to Osterman.

But researchers are finding better and faster ways to grow Schwann cells in the lab, with implications for more effective healing.


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