The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a component of the Federal government's National Institutes of Health (NIH) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has primary responsibility for research on peripheral neuropathy. Current research projects funded by the NINDS involve investigations of genetic factors associated with hereditary neuropathies, studies of biological mechanisms involved in diabetes-associated neuropathies, efforts to gain greater understanding of how the immune system contributes to peripheral nerve damage, and efforts to develop new therapies for neuropathic symptoms.
Because specific genetic defects have been identified for only a fraction of the known hereditary neuropathies, the Institute sponsors studies to identify other genetic defects that may cause these conditions. Presymptomatic diagnosis may lead to therapies for preventing nerve damage before it occurs, and gene replacement therapies could be developed to prevent or reduce cumulative nerve damage.
Several NINDS-funded studies are investigating some of the possible biological mechanisms responsible for the many forms of neuropathy, including the autonomic neuropathies that affect people with diabetes. The Institute also is funding studies to measure the frequency and progression rates of diabetic neuropathies, examine the effects of these disorders on quality of life, and identify factors that may put certain individuals at greater risk for developing diabetes-associated neuropathies.
Scientists have found that the destructive effects of abnormal immune system activity cause many neuropathies for which a cause could not previously be identified. However, the exact biological mechanisms that lead to this nerve damage are not yet well understood. Many NINDS-sponsored studies are studying inflammatory neuropathies, both in research animals and in humans, to clarify these mechanisms so that therapeutic interventions can be developed.
Neuropathic pain is a primary target of NINDS-sponsored studies aimed at developing more effective therapies for symptoms of peripheral neuropathy. Some scientists hope to identify substances that will block the brain chemicals that generate pain signals, while others are investigating the pathways by which pain signals reach the brain.
Studies of neurotrophic factors represent one of the most promising areas of research aimed at finding new, more effective treatments for peripheral neuropathies. These substances, produced naturally by the body, protect neurons from injury and encourage their survival. Neurotrophic factors also help maintain normal function in mature nerve cells, and some stimulate axon regeneration. Several NINDS-sponsored studies seek to learn more about the effects of these powerful chemicals on the peripheral nervous system and may eventually lead to treatments that can reverse nerve damage and cure peripheral nerve disorders.