What if you could regrow parts of your nervous system the same way that you regrow finger nails, skin cells, or hair? New research suggests it is highly probable that nerves can regrow themselves.
A part of the nervous system, thin myelin sheaths, may be the key to added longevity. A team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison reports that myelin sheaths can restore an impaired nervous system in animals, even after the onset of disease.
Long-living animals have the particular ability to repair their own nervous systems, but it is likely that humans can do the same thing.
All mammals have this vital, thin sheath that acts as an insulator and protector of its nerve fibers. The sheaths are composed of proteins and lipids which help to speed up signals that nerves send and receive to do all kinds of things, like walk, breathe, swallow, or any task involving a single muscle in the body.
Diseases of the central nervous system like multiple sclerosis (MS) degrade the myelin – the insulating protector of our nerve fibers. Scientists have always marveled at how such a thin sheath could be sufficient to protect the important nerve fibers which lead to the brain.
However, the Wisconsin-Madison study shows that the thin myelin sheaths are a valid, persistent marker of remyelination, a hypothesis challenged by other recent research.
“As the only biomarker of myelin repair available this would leave us without any means of identifying or quantifying myelin repair,” explains Ian Duncan, an expert on demyelinating diseases at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and the senior author of the new study.
Researchers were able to discover the importance of the nerve fiber sheaths by looking at dogs and cats with a rare genetic anomaly and observing how even after disease in puppies started to develop, they were able to rejuvenate their own nerve fibers with the protection of the myelin.
Our bodies already regenerate themselves many times over every day. We create billions of skin cells, heart cells, fat cells, tissues, and even brain cells (neurogenesis) when we sleep at night. It is said that every seven to ten years, we are a completely different set of cells and atoms than we were before due to this regenerative ability of the body. It’s quite a fascinating thing to realize considering that just a few years ago scientists still believed that once you lost brain cells due to age or lifestyle choices like smoking or drinking, you could never create new ones. Now that idea is laughable.
With the latest research advances, it seems clear that the body is more regenerative than we may have thought. It may at some point learn how to regenerate an entire arm, leg, or vital organ.
Coupled with recent research in stem cells to regenerate almost every single part of the body, it is possible that those suffering from MS and other CNS diseases could start to regenerate their own nerves, simply by introducing stem cells that could grow into myelin sheaths. The body would then do the rest to rejuvenate its own tissues and nerve functioning, thus improving communication between the brain and the rest of the nervous system – and really – all the systems of the body like the respiratory, cardiovascular, hormonal, etc.
The same way scientists used to scoff at the notion that the brain could generate new neuronal connections and brain cells, we may one day laugh at the belief that established science believed we couldn’t regenerate every single part of the body – including the nervous system.