Rationale: We hypothesized that the epithelial reticular basement membrane (RBM) thickening and eosinophilic inflammation characteristic of asthma would be present in symptomatic infants with reversible airflow obstruction.
Methods: RBM thickness and numbers of inflammatory cells were determined in ultrathin sections of endobronchial biopsies obtained from 53 infants during clinical bronchoscopy for severe wheeze and/or cough. Group A: 16 infants with a median age of 12 months (range 3.4-26 months), with decreased specific airway conductance (sGaw) and bronchodilator reversibility; Group B: 22 infants with a median age of 12.4 months (5.1-25.9 months), with decreased sGaw but without bronchodilator reversibility; and Group C: 15 infants with a median age of 11.5 months (3.4-24.3 months) with normal sGaw. Additional comparisons were made with the following groups. Group D: 17 children, median age 10.3 years (6-16 years), with difficult asthma; Group E: 10 pediatric control subjects without asthma, median age 10 years (6-16 years); and Group F: nine adult normal, healthy control subjects, median age 27 years (21-42 years).
Main results: There were no significant differences in RBM thickness or inflammatory cell number between the infant groups. RBM thickness was similar in the infants and Groups E and F. However, the RBM in all infant groups (Group A: median 4.3 microm [range 2.8-9.2 microm]; Group B: median 4.15 microm [range 2.7-5.8 microm]; Group C: median 3.8 microm [range 2.7-5.5 microm]) was significantly less thick than that in the older children with asthma (Group D: median 8.3 microm [range 5.3-12.7 microm]; p < 0.001).
Conclusion: RBM thickening and the eosinophilic inflammation characteristic of asthma in older children and adults are not present in symptomatic infants with reversible airflow obstruction, even in the presence of atopy.