Quantitative pathology of cutaneous nerve terminal degeneration in the human skin

Acta Neuropathol. 2001 Nov;102(5):455-61. doi: 10.1007/s004010100397.


Pathological diagnosis of neuropathy has traditionally depended on ultrastructural examinations of nerve biopsy specimens, particularly for sensory neuropathies affecting unmyelinated and small-myelinated nociceptive nerves. These sensory nerves terminate in the epidermis of the skin, and the pathology of neuropathy usually begins from nerve terminals. We investigated the feasibility of diagnosing small-fiber sensory neuropathy by evaluating cutaneous innervation. Skin biopsy specimens of 3-mm in diameter were obtained from the distal leg and the distal forearm of 55 healthy controls and 35 patients with sensory neuropathy. In the healthy controls, conventional intraepidermal nerve fiber densities (IENF densities) as measured using the image analysis system in the distal forearm and in the distal leg were correlated (r=0.55, P<0.0001), with significantly higher values in the distal forearm than in the distal leg (17.07+/-6.51 vs 12.92+/-5.33 fibers/mm, P<0.001). Compared to IENF densities of healthy controls, these values of neuropathic patients were significantly reduced in the distal forearm (5.82+/-6.50 fibers/mm, P<0.01) and in the distal leg (2.40+/-2.30, P<0.001). We further explored the possibility of quantifying skin innervation by counting "ocular intraepidermal nerve fiber density" (ocular nerve fiber density) with no aid of an image analysis system. This was based on the fact that the epidermal length on specifically defined sections was very close to the predicted epidermal length of 3 mm, the diameter of skin punches (P=0.14). Ocular nerve fiber densities were significantly correlated with IENF densities as measured by the image analysis system (r=0.99, P<0.0001). Dermal nerve fibers of neuropathic patients either disappeared or became degenerated. These findings were consistent with the notion of early terminal degeneration in neuropathy, and will facilitate quantitative interpretation of epidermal innervation in human neuropathy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Biopsy
  • Cell Count
  • Epidermis / innervation*
  • Epidermis / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Degeneration / pathology*
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / pathology*
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / pathology*