Although neurotization has the potential to improve sensory outcomes after autologous breast reconstruction, this technique remains controversial. There is debate regarding the clinical outcomes and the recipient nerve of choice. This histoanatomical study aims to quantitatively compare the sensory components of the recipient nerves involved in neurotization of the deep inferior epigastric perforator flap.
Subjects undergoing bilateral autologous breast reconstruction were enrolled. Transected nerve specimens underwent immunohistochemical staining with antibodies against neurofilament 1 and choline acetyltransferase for total and motor neurons within the axons, respectively. Photomicrographs were captured, and axons were analyzed using ImageJ. Sensory axons were calculated as equal to the difference between the total and cholinergic axonal counts.
Thirty-eight nerves from 19 subjects were included. The overall mean sensory axon count was 1246.3 (±1171.9) in the lateral cutaneous branch (LCB) of the fourth intercostal nerve and 1123.8 (±1213.0) in the anterior cutaneous branch (ACB) of the third intercostal nerve.
The fourth LCB presented with an additional 10.9% sensory axonal count (P > 0.05). On average, sensory fibers constituted 36.7% and 31.7% of all fibers in the third ACBs and fourth LCBs, respectively.
This study provides anatomic and histological evidence that the fourth LCB and third ACB contain comparable mean numbers of sensory axons. Both constitute adequate recipient nerves for coaptation in deep inferior epigastric perforator reinnervation to achieve optimal sensory return after breast reconstruction. The fourth LCB should be preferable when the third ACB remains intact to preserve any native breast flap sensation.