Current management of traumatic peripheral nerve injuries is variable with operative decisions based on assumptions that irreversible degeneration of the human motor endplate (MEP) follows prolonged denervation and precludes reinnervation. However, the mechanism and time course of MEP changes after human peripheral nerve injury have not been investigated. Consequently, there are no objective measures by which to determine the probability of spontaneous recovery and the optimal timing of surgical intervention. To improve guidance for such decisions, the aim of this study was to characterize morphological changes at the human MEP following traumatic nerve injury.
A prospective cohort (here analyzed retrospectively) of 18 patients with traumatic brachial plexus and axillary nerve injuries underwent biopsy of denervated muscles from the upper extremity from 3 days to 6 years after injury. Muscle specimens were processed for H & E staining and immunohistochemistry, with visualization via confocal and two-photon excitation microscopy.
Immunohistochemical analysis demonstrated varying degrees of fragmentation and acetylcholine receptor dispersion in denervated muscles. Comparison of denervated muscles at different times postinjury revealed progressively increasing degeneration. Linear regression analysis of 3D reconstructions revealed significant linear decreases in MEP volume (R = −0.92, R2 = 0.85, p = 0.001) and surface area (R = −0.75, R2 = 0.56, p = 0.032) as deltoid muscle denervation time increased. Surprisingly, innervated and structurally intact MEPs persisted in denervated muscle specimens from multiple patients 6 or more months after nerve injury, including 2 patients who had presented > 3 years after nerve injury.
This study details novel and critically important data about the morphology and temporal sequence of events involved in human MEP degradation after traumatic nerve injuries. Surprisingly, human MEPs not only persisted, but also retained their structures beyond the assumed 6-month window for therapeutic surgical intervention based on previous clinical studies. Preoperative muscle biopsy in patients being considered for nerve transfer may be a useful prognostic tool to determine MEP viability in denervated muscle, with surviving MEPs also being targets for adjuvant therapy.