Neural basis of sensation in intact and injured corneas

Exp Eye Res. 2004 Mar;78(3):513-25. doi: 10.1016/j.exer.2003.09.023.


A renewed interest in the characteristics and neural basis of corneal and conjunctival sensations is developing in recent years due to the high incidence of discomfort and altered sensitivity of the cornea following refractive surgery, use of contact lenses and dry eyes. Corneal nerves are functionally heterogeneous: about 20% respond exclusively to noxious mechanical forces (mechano-nociceptors); 70% are additionally excited by extreme temperatures, exogenous irritant chemicals and endogenous inflammatory mediators (polymodal nociceptors), and 10% are cold-sensitive and increase their discharge with moderate cooling of the cornea (cold receptors). Each of these types of sensory fibres contributes distinctly to corneal sensations. Mechano-nociceptors mediate, sharp acute pain produced by touching of the cornea. Polymodal nociceptors elicit the sustained irritation and pain that accompany corneal wounding; cold receptors evoke cooling sensations. Depending on the relative activation by the stimulus of each subpopulation of corneal sensory fibres, different subqualities of irritation and pain sensations are evoked. Corneal sensations can be explored experimentally in humans with a gas esthesiometer that applies controlled mechanical, chemical and thermal stimuli to the corneal surface. When the cornea is wounded, corneal nerves are excited and eventually severed in a variable degree and local inflammation is produced. Activated corneal nerves release neuropeptides (SP, CGRP) that contribute to the inflammatory reaction (neurogenic inflammation). They also become sensitized by local inflammatory mediators, such as prostaglandins or bradykinin and thus exhibit spontaneous activity, lowered threshold and enhanced responses to new stimuli. This leads to spontaneous pain and hyperalgesia. Nerves destroyed by injury soon start to regenerate and form microneuromas that exhibit abnormal responsiveness and spontaneous discharges, due to an altered expression of ion channel proteins in the soma and in regenerating nerve terminals. Presumably, this altered excitability is the origin of the lowered sensitivity and the spontaneous pain, dry eye sensations and other disaesthesias reported in patients following refractive surgery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cornea / innervation*
  • Corneal Injuries
  • Humans
  • Hypesthesia / physiopathology
  • Keratitis / physiopathology
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Sensation / physiology*
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / pathology
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / physiology*