Early regeneration of injured peripheral nerves involves a series of events that are important in the success of eventual reconnection. In many nerve injuries, such as transections with gaps, axons and Schwann cells (SCs) penetrate into new microenvironments de novo, not involving zones of Wallerian degeneration. We studied unexplored axon–SC interactions by sampling of newly forming connections through a silicone conduit across transected rat sciatic peripheral nerve gaps. Axon and SC participation in bridge formation was addressed by light microscopy, electron microscopy and by double-labeling immunohistochemistry, including confocal imaging, and several, less appreciated aspects of early regrowth were identified. There are limitations to early and widespread regeneration of axons and SCs into bridges initially formed from connective tissue and blood vessels. Regrowth is ‘staggered’ such that only a small percentage of parent axons sampled the early bridge. There is an intimate, almost invariable relationship between SCs and extension of axons, which challenges the concept that axons lead and SCs follow. ‘Naked’ axons were infrequent and limited in scope. Axons did not seek out and adhere to vascular laminin but intimately followed laminin deposits associated with apposed SCs. Growth cones identified by labeling of β III tubulin, PGP 9.5 and GAP43/B50 were complex, implying a pause in their regrowth, and were most prominent at the proximal stump–regenerative bridge interface. There is surprising and substantial hostility to local regrowth of axons into newly forming peripheral nerve bridges. Early axon outgrowth, associated with apposed Schwann cell processes, is highly constrained even when not exposed to adjacent myelin and products of Wallerian degeneration.
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