Despite major microsurgical improvements the clinical outcome of peripheral nerve surgery is still regarded as suboptimal. Over the past decade several innovative techniques have been developed to extend the armamentarium of the nerve surgeon. This review evaluates the potential of gene therapy in the context of peripheral nerve repair. First the main challenges impeding peripheral nerve regeneration are presented. This is followed by a short introduction to gene therapy and an overview of its most important advantages over the classical delivery of therapeutic proteins. Next, this review focuses on the most promising viral vectors capable of targeting the peripheral nervous system and their first application in animal models. In addition, the challenges of translating these experimental results to the clinic, the limitations of current vectors and the further developments needed, are discussed. Finally, four strategies are presented on how gene therapy could help patients that have to undergo reconstructive nerve surgery in the future. © The Author(s) 2011.