Anatomy of the human corneal innervation

Carl F. Marfurt, Jeremiah Cox, Sylvia Deek, Lauren Dvorscak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

225 Scopus citations


The anatomy of the human corneal innervation has been the subject of much investigation; however, a comprehensive description remains elusive. The purpose of the present study was to provide a detailed description of the human corneal innervation using a novel approach involving immunohistochemically stained anterior-cornea whole mounts. Sixteen donor corneas aged 19-78 years were cut with a 6.0 mm trephine into a central plug and two peripheral rims. Each specimen was sectioned serially on a cryostat to produce several 100 μm-thick stromal sections and a 100-140 μm-thick anterior-cornea whole mount that contained the entire corneal epithelium and much of the anterior stroma. The corneal innervation was stained with a primary antibody against beta neurotubulin and subjected to rigorous quantitative and qualitative analyses. The results showed that a mean of 71.3 ± 14.3, uniformly spaced, main stromal nerve bundles entered the cornea at the corneoscleral limbus. The bundles averaged 20.3 ± 7.0 μm in diameter, were separated by a mean spacing of 0.49 ± 0.40 mm, and entered the cornea at a mean distance of 293 ± 106 μm from the ocular surface. Each stromal bundle gave rise through repetitive branching to a moderately dense midstromal plexus and a dense subepithelial plexus (SEP). The SEP was comprised of modest numbers of straight and curvilinear nerves, most of which penetrated Bowman's membrane to supply the corneal epithelium, and a more abundant and anatomically complex population of tortuous, highly anastomotic nerves that remained largely confined in their distribution to the SEP. SEP density and anatomical complexity varied considerably among corneas and was less dense and patchier in the central cornea. A mean of 204 ± 58.5 stromal nerves penetrated Bowman's membrane to supply the central 10 mm of corneal epithelium (2.60 nerves/mm2). The density of Bowman's membrane penetrations was greater peripherally than centrally. After entering the epithelium, stromal nerves branched into groups of up to twenty subbasal nerve fibers known as epithelial leashes. Leashes in the central and intermediate cornea anastomosed extensively to form a dense, continuous subbasal nerve plexus, while leashes in the peripheral cornea demonstrated fewer anastomoses and were less complex anatomically. Viewed in its entirety, the subbasal nerve plexus formed a gentle, whorl-like assemblage of long curvilinear subbasal fibers, 1.0-8.0 mm in length, that converged on an imaginary seam or gentle spiral (vortex) approximately 2.51 ± 0.23 mm inferonasal to the corneal apex. Mean subbasal nerve fiber density near the corneal apex was 45.94 ± 5.20 mm/mm2 and mean subbasal and interconnecting nerve fiber diameters in the same region were 1.51 ± 0.74 μm and 0.69 ± 0.26 μm, respectively. Intraepithelial terminals originated exclusively as branches of subbasal nerves and terminated in all epithelial layers. Nerve terminals in the wing and squamous cell layers were morphologically diverse and ranged in total length from 9 to 780 μm. The suprabasal layers of the central corneal epithelium contained approximately 605.8 terminals/mm2. The results of this study provide a detailed, comprehensive description of human corneal nerve architecture and density that extends and refines existing accounts. An accurate, detailed model of the normal human corneal innervation may predict or help to understand the consequences of corneal nerve damage during refractive, cataract and other ocular surgeries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)478-492
Number of pages15
JournalExperimental eye research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2010


  • Corneal nerves
  • Subbasal nerves

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience

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