Dry Eye disease causes discomfort and pain in millions of patients. Using a mouse acute desiccating stress (DS) model we show that DS induces a reduction in intraepithelial corneal nerve (ICN) density, corneal sensitivity, and apical extension of the intraepithelial nerve terminals (INTs) that branch from the subbasal nerves (SBNs). Topical application of 0.02% Mitomycin C (MMC) or vehicle alone has no impact on the overall loss of axon density due to acute DS. Chronic dry eye, which develops progressively as C57BL/6 mice age, is accompanied by significant loss of the ICNs and corneal sensitivity between 2 and 24 months of age. QPCR studies show that mRNAs for several proteins that regulate axon growth and extension are reduced in corneal epithelial cells by 24 months of age but those that regulate phagocytosis and autophagy are not altered. Taken together, these data demonstrate that dry eye disease is accompanied by alterations in intraepithelial sensory nerve morphology and function and by reduced expression in corneal epithelial cells of mRNAs encoding genes mediating axon extension.
Précis: Acute and chronic mouse models of dry eye disease are used to evaluate the pathologic effects of dry eye on the intraepithelial corneal nerves (ICNs) and corneal epithelial cells. Data show reduced numbers of sensory nerves and alterations in nerve morphology, sensitivity, corneal epithelial cell proliferation, and expression of mRNAs for proteins mediating axon extension accompany the pathology induced by dry eye.