Correlation between Facial Nerve Axonal Load and Age and Its Relevance to Facial Reanimation

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Background:Two-stage facial reanimation procedures with a cross-facial nerve graft often have unsatisfactory results in the older patient. Although the cause of result variability is likely multifactorial, some studies suggest that increased donor nerve axonal load improves function of a free muscle transfer after a cross-facial nerve graft. This study attempts to characterize the relationship between age and facial nerve axonal load.Methods:Sixty-three fresh cadaveric heads were dissected to expose the facial nerve. For each hemiface, two facial nerve samples were taken: one proximal as the nerve exits the stylomastoid foramen, and one distal at the buccal branch (at a point 1 cm proximal to the anterior parotid border). Nerve samples were stained and quantified. Correlation analysis was completed using a Pearson correlation coefficient.Results:Thirty-six female and 27 male cadavers were dissected; their average age was 71 years (range, 22 to 97 years). At the proximal (r = −0.26; p < 0.01; n = 104) and distal (r = −0.45; p < 0.0001; n = 114) sampling points, there was a significant negative correlation between age and axonal load.Conclusions:As age increases, the axonal load of the facial nerve decreases at the buccal and zygomatic branches approximately 1 cm proximal to the anterior parotid border. The authors previously suggested this location as significant for cross-facial nerve coaptation. These results propose that decreasing axonal load can be a factor in the unsatisfactory outcomes of cross-facial grafting in the aging population. Moreover, this underscores the importance of recruiting more donor axons in attempting to improve facial reanimation in the older patient.

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