21 Oct 2011

Open University research provides insight into nerve function

Research by The Open University has shed new light on how peripheral nerves accommodate normal limb movement. The study, published in the Journal of the Peripheral Nervous System (JPNS), will be of interest to clinicians working to repair damaged nerves and physiotherapists treating nerve-related problems.

Dr James Phillips, Lecturer in Health Sciences at The Open University and Principal Investigator, said: “We’ve been investigating how peripheral nerves are adapted to cope with the bending and stretching to which they are subjected during normal movement. If this ability is compromised, for example after nerve injury, it can lead to pain, fibrosis and loss of function. Little is known about how the structure of nerves allows them to bend and stretch normally. Our research shows localised variation in collagen in the areas near joints that could explain how the nerves cope with limb movement.”

Dr Phillips’ PhD student, Sarah Mason, conducted the study published in JPNS, which is part of a programme of work that aims to understand nerve biomechanics in order to improve surgical nerve repair. Previous research by Dr Phillips’ group showed that nerves are more compliant at joints compared to other parts of the limbs. In particular, in the median nerve, which controls hand function, there is an area of increased compliance at the elbow joint.

The new study reported that median nerves at joint regions showed a pattern of smaller diameter collagen fibrils than non-joint regions. Increased nerve compliance at joints may therefore be due to the presence of collagen fibrils with smaller diameters and increased density, compared to those in stiffer non-joint regions.

The study indicated that collagen fibril diameter may be a key feature contributing to the mechanical function of nerves, which provides new insight into how these nerves accommodate localised strain during limb movement.

Editor’s Notes

* The OU supports a vibrant research portfolio and in the UK's last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), the University climbed 23 places to 43rd, securing a place in the UK's top 50 higher education institutions. Results showed that more than 50% of the University’s research is internationally excellent (3*), with a significant proportion world-leading (4*).

* The Open University is the UK’s largest university and the world leader in distance education, and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009. It has more than 260,000 students in over 40 countries. Of these, some 1,200 are postgraduate research students.

* The latest edition of the Open University’s Research Highlights brochure can be downloaded from:

* Open Research Online (ORO), the University’s freely accessible repository of research publications, is available at: Since its launch in 2006, it has been visited by over 1.6 million people from more than 200 countries, and is currently ranked the fifth best higher education repository in the UK by the Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR).

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