Corneal epithelial cells function as surrogate Schwann cells for their sensory nerves

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The eye is innervated by neurons derived from both the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system (PNS). While much is known about retinal neurobiology and phototransduction, less attention has been paid to the innervation of the eye by the PNS and the roles it plays in maintaining a functioning visual system. The ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal ganglion contains somas of neurons that innervate the cornea. These nerves provide sensory functions for the cornea and are referred to as intraepithelial corneal nerves (ICNs) consisting of subbasal nerves and their associated intraepithelial nerve terminals. ICNs project for several millimeters within the corneal epithelium without Schwann cell support. Here, we present evidence for the hypothesis that corneal epithelial cells function as glial cells to support the ICNs. Much of the data supporting this hypothesis is derived from studies of corneal development and the reinnervation of the ICNs in the rodent and rabbit cornea after superficial wounds. Corneal epithelial cells activate in response to injury via mechanisms similar to those induced in Schwann cells during Wallerian Degeneration. Corneal epithelial cells phagocytize distal axon fragments within hours of ICN crush wounds. During aging, the proteins, lipids, and mitochondria within the ICNs become damaged in a process exacerbated by UV light. We propose that ICNs shed their aged and damaged termini and continuously elongate to maintain their density. Available evidence points to new unexpected roles for corneal epithelial cells functioning as surrogate Schwann cells for the ICNs during homeostasis and in response to injury. GLIA 2017;65:851–863

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