Translational Immunoimaging and Neuroimaging Demonstrate Corneal Neuroimmune Crosstalk

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Corneal immunoimaging and neuroimaging approaches facilitate in vivo analyses of the cornea, including high-resolution imaging of corneal immune cells and nerves. This approach facilitates the analyses of underlying immune and nerve alterations not detected by clinical slit-lamp examination alone. In this review, we describe recent work performed in our translational ocular immunology center with a focus on “bench-to-bedside” and “bedside-to-bench” research. The ability to visualize dendritiform immune cells (DCs) in patients with laser in vivo confocal microscopy (IVCM), recently discovered in the central murine cornea, has allowed us to demonstrate their utility as a potential surrogate biomarker for inflammatory ocular surface diseases. This biomarker for inflammation allows the measurement of therapeutic efficacy of anti-inflammatory drugs and its utility as an endpoint in clinical trials with high interobserver agreement. IVCM image analyses from our studies has demonstrated a significant increase in DC density and size in ocular disease, a positive correlation between DC density and clinical signs and symptoms of disease and pro-inflammatory tear cytokines, and a strong negative correlation between DC density and subbasal nerve density. In conjunction with preclinical research investigating the inflammatory state in a partial or fully denervated cornea, our results indicated that corneal nerves are directly involved in the regulation of homeostasis and immune privilege in the cornea.

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