In order to test whether fetal nerve healing and regeneration result in complete functional recovery, we transected the sciatic nerve at trunk level in 13 midgestational sheep fetuses. In 10 fetuses immediate microsurgical nerve coaptation was performed. The neonatal lambs were evaluated clinically, electrophysiologically, and histologically. On the transected side, the 10 surviving lambs showed a sensorimotor sciatic nerve paralysis and atrophy of the muscles innervated by the sciatic nerve. Somatosensory evoked potentials were weakly present in 5 animals and absent in 5 animals. Histologically, minimal signs of axonal regeneration, massive degeneration of the entire nerve, and a marked neurogenic muscle atrophy were found. These unexpected results differ from the findings after peripheral nerve transections in late gestational sheep fetuses and also from the classic wallerian degeneration- regeneration pattern that follows adult nerve injury. We speculate that the almost absent regenerative potential at midgestation is related to axotomy- induced neurotrophic factor deprivation during a developmental phase where the neurons are critically dependent on growth factor for survival.
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