Sensory and sympathetic nerve sprouting in the rat cornea following neonatal administration of capsaicin

Carl F. Marfurt, Lawrence C. Ellis, Mark A. Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

26 Scopus citations


Corneal sensory and sympathetic nerves exert opposing actions on corneal mitogenesis and wound healing. The mechanisms by which these nerves exert their actions are unknown; however, the release of axonally transported neuropeptides has been postulated. In the present study, we investigated changes in innervation densities of calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP-) and tyrosine hydroxylase (TH-)immunoreactive (IR) nerves of the rat cornea following neonatal capsaicin administration, and the relationships between these changes and the development of neuroparalytic keratitis. Newborn rats were injected with capsaicin on each of the first 3 days of life. Forty-eight hours after the last injection, corneal CGRP immunostaining had totally disappeared from the cornea, whereas TH immunostaining was relatively unaffected. Over the next several weeks, a dramatic reinnervation of the cornea took place. By 6-8 weeks both the CGRP-and TH-IR corneal innervation density in the capsaicin-treated animals exceeded that of age-matched control or normal animals; that is, the corneas had become "hyper-reinnervated" The pattern of innervation that returned was grossly abnormal and was characterized by the presence of a bizarre subepithelial plexus of fine stromal sprouts; an abundance of myelinated axons; and complex, atypical, epithelial leash morphologies. Retrograde transport of wheatgerm agglutinin conjugated to horseradish peroxidase (WGA:HRP) from the central cornea in control and capsaicin-treated adult animals labeled an average of 143 and 47 trigeminal ganglion cells, respectively (with mean diameters of 25.7 × 0.49 μm and 34.3 × 0.72 μm), suggesting a 67% decrease in corneal afferent neurons in the capsaicin-treated animals. Transection of the ophthalmomaxillary nerve in adult capsaicin-treated animals completely eliminated corneal CGRP-IR staining, and extirpation of the superior cervical ganglion resulted in the loss of 70-80% of corneal TH-IR nerves, thus demonstrating the sensory and predominantly sympathetic origins, respectively, of these fiber populations. Chronic keratitis and neovascularization developed in the capsaicin-treated animals by approximately 3 weeks of age, achieved a maximum intensity between 4 and 6 weeks, and showed some gradual improvement thereafter. However, the keratitis never completely disappeared, even after 13 months. In conclusion, these data show that corneal sensory (CGRP-IR) and sympathetic (TH-IR) nerve fibers undergo extensive sprouting following partial corneal sensory denervation with the neurotoxin capsaicin. However, the resultant "hyper-reinnervation" is morphologically abnormal and, for reasons unknown, functionally incapable of preventing or totally reversing the keratitis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)377-398
Number of pages22
JournalSomatosensory & Motor Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jan 1 1993


  • Calcitonin gene-related peptide
  • Capsaicin
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Keratitis
  • Sprouting
  • Trophism
  • Tyrosine hydroxylase

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Sensory Systems
  • Neuroscience(all)

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Sensory and sympathetic nerve sprouting in the rat cornea following neonatal administration of capsaicin'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

  • Cite this