School of Medicine

Drug helps sensory neurons regrow in the mouse central nervous system

Sensory neurons regrow more after injury when treated with the drug fenofibrate (lower panel) than when given a placebo (top panel; arrows indicate site of injury). Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have discovered that an FDA-approved drug acts on support cells in the central nervous system to encourage sensory neurons to regrow after injury. (Image: Rui Feng)

A spinal cord injury damages the lines of communication between the body and brain, impeding the signals that drive movement and sensation. Injured motor and sensory neurons in the central nervous system — the brain and spinal cord — have limited ability to heal, so people who survive such injuries can be left with chronic paralysis, numbness and pain.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have identified a drug that helps sensory neurons in the central nervous system heal. Neurons are surrounded by support cells that protect and nurture them. In this study, the researchers gave mice with injured sensory neurons a drug called fenofibrate that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat high cholesterol. The drug activated the support cells surrounding sensory neurons and helped them regrow about twice as fast as sensory neurons in mice that received a placebo. The study is available online in eLife.

“When people think of spinal cord injury, they tend to think of paralysis, but there are a lot of problems with sensory processing and pain after spinal cord injury as well,” said senior author Valeria Cavalli, PhD, the Robert E. and Louise F. Dunn Professor of Biomedical Research and a professor of neuroscience. “Addressing those sensory issues could go a long way toward improving quality of life for survivors. Our data indicate that fenofibrate has the potential to activate these support cells and improve recovery, which means we could potentially repurpose this FDA-approved compound to help restore sensory function after nerve injuries.”

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