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Keywords:

  • ground reaction forces;
  • kinematics;
  • nerve repair;
  • retrograde tracing;
  • skilled locomotion

Abstract

Nerve transfer procedures involving the repair of a distal denervated nerve element with that of a foreign proximal nerve have become increasingly popular for clinical nerve repair as a surgical alternative to autologous nerve grafting. However, the functional outcomes and the central plasticity for these procedures remain poorly defined, particularly for a clinically relevant rodent model of hindlimb nerve transfer. We therefore evaluated the effect of selective tibial branch nerve transfer on behavioural recovery in animals following acute transection of the deep peroneal nerve. The results indicate that not only can hindlimb nerve transfers be successfully accomplished in a rat model but that these animals display a return of skilled locomotor function on a par with animals that underwent direct deep peroneal nerve repair (the current gold standard). At 2 months, ground reaction force analysis demonstrated that partial restoration of braking forces occurred in the nerve transfer group, whereas the direct repair group had fully restored these forces to similar to baseline levels. Ankle kinematic analysis revealed that only animals in the direct repair group significantly recovered flexion during the step cycle, indicating a recovery of surgically induced foot drop. Terminal electrophysiological and myological assessments demonstrated similar levels of reinnervation, whereas retrograde labelling studies confirmed that the peroneal nerve-innervated muscles were innervated by neurons from the tibial nerve pool in the nerve transfer group. Our results demonstrate a task-dependent recovery process, where skilled locomotor recovery is similar between nerve transfer and direct repair animals, whereas flat surface locomotion is significantly better in direct repair animals.